By Reg Reynolds
The SS Runic, a White Star Line cruise liner, left Liverpool on December 19, carrying 390 officers and men of the Australian Army who had fought in World War One and had waited more than a year for transport home. The soldiers were accompanied by 330 wives and children, including 25 newborns in bassinets. There were ten Australian nurses on board to help with the wounded and the babies and special arrangements had been made for preparing baby food, and a laundry was set up specifically to wash the baby’s linen diapers.
The Yorkshire Post of December 22nd, reported under the headline A Family Troopship:
The vessel will be passing Gibraltar on Christmas Eve and Father Christmas will come down the ship’s chimney (fortunately the Runic’s funnel is wide enough to accommodate Father Christmas and a great big bag of toys).
He attacked the German trenches, killing 25 of the enemy.
A celebrated soldier on board the Runic was Lawrence Dominic ‘Fats’ McCarthy who had won the Victoria Cross in a battle near the town of Chaulnes in the Somme department of northern France. On August 23rd, 1918, McCarthy, who had survived the disastrous campaign in Gallipoli, performed what was described as the most effective piece of individual fighting in the history of the Australia Imperial Force. Under extreme machine gun fire in an area called Madam Wood, McCarthy dashed across 40 yards of open ground. Firing his revolver and throwing bombs he attacked the German trenches, killing 25 of the enemy, capturing 55 others and securing six machine guns.
On November 21st, 1918, ten days after the war had ended, McCarthy was evacuated to England with influenza. The flu epidemic of 1918-1919 would kill an estimated 50 million people worldwide, but McCarthy survived, and on July 12th, 1919 he attended Buckingham Palace where he received his Victoria Cross from King George V.
McCarthy was born in York, Western Australia on January 21st, 1892 but was orphaned at an early age and was raised in the Clontarf Orphange at Perth. He was educated at Catholic schools and later apprenticed on a farm, joined a militia and lost three fingers on his left hand while working at a sawmill. Great Britain declared war on Germany on 4th August 1914 and Australia quickly raised an army of 20,000 in support. McCarthy enlisted as a Private in October 1914 but after five years of fighting had achieved the rank of Lieutenant. He had married Florence Norville in London and she celebrated Christmas with him on the Runic during the voyage to Australia. McCarthy left the army in 1920 and sold farm equipment for Sunshine Harvester Works until 1934 when he joined with Trustees, Executors & Agency Co. He stayed with that firm until his retirement in 1969.
McCarthy died in Melbourne on May 25th, 1975 aged 83. His Victoria Cross is on display at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra. The McCarthy’s only son Lawrence, was killed fighting the Japanese on Bougainville Island on May 20th, 1945.
The 27 survivors were taken prisoner and transferred to Gibraltar.
At the end of The Great War SS Runic returned to regular service as a cruise liner but in 1930 she was sold and converted to a whaling factory ship and renamed New Sevilla. On September 20th, 1940 New Sevilla was sailing with convoy OB 216 from Liverpool to Antarctica when she was torpedoed by U-138 off Malin Head, Galway Ireland. New Sevilla stayed afloat and was taken under tow but sank the next day. As a result, only two lives were lost and there were 285 survivors.
U-138 torpedoed and sank three more cargo ships in convoy OB 216 and would sink another three freighters before meeting her end. The U-boat was spotted by HMS Faulknor near Cadiz on May 20th, 1941. On seeing the approaching destroyer, Captain Franz Gramitzky ordered an emergency dive but three depth charges from Faulknor caused sufficient damage that U-138 surfaced and the crew surrendered. There were no deaths and the 27 survivors were taken prisoner and transferred to Gibraltar.