Mystery behind the Louvain

Ritson Memorial
Ritson Memorial

On January 20, 1918, the armed boarding steamer HMS Louvain was sunk by German U Boat UC 22, commanded by Kapitänleutnant Carl Bünte, just south east of Athens in the Aegean Sea.

The ship went down with 224 men including 18-year-old Ordinary Seaman John Johnson Metcalfe, a former hewer at Ritson & Sons Preston Colliery, from North Shields.

Knowing that Louvain was the Belgian city heavily damaged by the advancing German army at the start of the war, where 300 civilians lost their lives and it’s world famous University Library, containing many Gothic and Renaissance manuscripts, was completely destroyed, an event that shocked the world, I was intrigued to find out more about the ship of that name.

And what an interesting story I came upon. The Louvain was, in a previous life, a British passenger ship called the SS Dresden, operated by the Great Eastern Railway until 1915 when it was taken over by the Royal Navy. However, on September 29, 1913, it was at the centre of a mysterious death of one of the greatest technological innovators of the age. No less than the man who gave the diesel engine its name – Rudolf Christian Karl Diesel.

Diesel boarded the ship in Antwerp en route to a meeting with the Consolidated Diesel Manufacturing Company in London. He had dinner and then retired to his cabin at about 10pm, leaving word to be called the next day at 6.15am,but he was never seen alive again. In the morning his cabin was empty and his bed had not been slept in, although his nightshirt was neatly laid out and his watch had been left where it could be seen from the bed. His hat and overcoat were discovered neatly folded beneath the afterdeck railing.

His body was found 10 days later just off the coast of Norway. His body was unidentifiable but from the items in his pockets it was declared the body of Herr Diesel. Speculation has centred on two theories. Could he have been murdered, given his refusal to grant the German forces the exclusive rights to using his invention? Indeed, Diesel was intending to meet with representatives of the Royal Navy to discuss the possibility of powering British submarines by diesel engine …but he never made it ashore.

The other theory, however, seems more plausible. Shortly after her husband’s disappearance his wife Martha opened a bag given to her by him containing the equivalent of one million ponds today as well as a number of financial documents indicating that he had money problems. In his diary for September 29 a cross had been written clearly in the page. Despite these, and other theories, the death of Rudolf Diesel still remains unsolved.

HMS Louvain went down close to the Temple of Poseidon, the Greek God of the sea and protector of seafarers. Sadly, he couldn’t come to the rescue of poor Seaman Metcalfe. His body was never found and he is commemorated on the Ritson Memorial at Preston Cemetery, the company Roll of Honour and on the Portsmouth Naval Memorial.

The Northumbria World War One project welcomes anyone with information on any of the casualties of the Great War from North Tyneside. To become involved in research, visit northumbriaworldwarone.co.uk or call in to our office at B9 in the Linskill Centre in North Shields or contact me at tommy@northumbriaworldwarone.co.uk