ONE of the most important shipwrecks in the country has lain on the seabed off the North-East coast for just over a century – yet few people are aware of it. Andrew White investigates the little-known story of the RFA Creosol and her sisters.

IT had been an uneventful journey for the oil tanker RFA Creosol as she approached the North-East coast in February 1918.

But few sea voyages undertaken during the First World War could be described as routine. And for this particular vessel, en route from the Humber to Sunderland, February 7, 1918, would prove to be a fateful date.

The Creosol, which had been built and launched in Sunderland just two years previously, was under special escort from two armed trawlers named Swallow and Beatrice – but they were not the only vessels in those waters on that night.

A Norwegian cargo steamer, the SS Elfi, was nearby, on its way from Jarrow to Rouen, with a cargo of coal. And a large heavily protected convoy of 15 merchant ships was close astern.

But there was also an unseen danger lurking beneath the waves.

The German Imperial Navy submarine UC-17 – a feared U-boat – captained by 28-year-old Oberleutnant zur Erich Stephan was patrolling the waters.

And it had the Creosol in its sights.

At about 3.30am, as the tanker passed a buoy some five miles east-north-east of Seaham Harbour, UC-17 attacked.

Although a steamed-up periscope meant Stephan was unable to identify the vessel, the oberleutnant ordered a torpedo to be fired from UC-17's number two tube, which was about half-a-mile away.

One of the Creosol's crew members spotted the track of the torpedo from a porthole, but no one on deck saw it and – 42 seconds after it was launched – the missile struck.

It took just three minutes for the Creosol to sink.

The Swallow took survivors onboard, but sadly two men lost their lives – Scullion William Brocklehurst, a kitchen servant who had only joined the Creosol less then three weeks earlier, and Leading Fireman Michael Walsh, who had briefly deserted shortly after signing on the ship in August 1916.

The Creosol was not the only victim of UC-17 that night. The Elfi was also sunk, with the loss of six lives.

Motor launches defending the North-East coast immediately and correctly suspected that a submarine had attacked the two vessels and dropped nine depth charges, but none of them got to within 300 metres of their intended target.

Subsequent hunting of the submarine by all craft proved unfruitful and UC-17 slipped away, undetected.

Less than two months later, UC-17 would claim her most high-profile victim of the conflict – RFA Lady Cory-Wright, a cargo ship built as a civilian collier in Sunderland in 1906 which became a Royal Fleet Auxiliary mine carrier.

She was torpedoed about 14 miles off The Lizard, in Cornwall, claiming the life of all but one of her 41-strong crew – reports suggest the lone survivor was found clinging to a floating mine.

UC-17 went on to become one of the most successful U-boats of the First World War, sinking a total of 96 ships and damaging nine others.

She was surrendered on November 26, 1918, and was later broken up at Preston.

The Creosol, however, still lies on the seabed where she sank more than 100 years ago.

Her origins go back to the outbreak of the First World War when the Admiralty embarked on a programme of tanker construction for the newly-formed Royal Fleet Auxiliary (RFA) Service.

The RFA is a civilian-manned fleet of the Ministry of Defence, whose primary role is to supply the Royal Navy with fuel, water, ammunition and supplies.

RFA Creosol was constructed at the Short Brothers Ltd yard in Sunderland, where she was launched on February 5, 1916. The ship was eventually one of 18 in her class with the OL suffix, 12 of which were named after trees. The others, including Creosol, had names connected to the oil industry.

Others in her class were built at yards in Newcastle, Stockton, West Hartlepool and in Scotland.

It is thought that Creosol would likely have carried Otter anti-mine sweeps, in use by mid-1917 as depth charges became more efficient and in good supply.

The only explosives aboard would be for the three or four inch gun carried amidships – possibly up to 36 rounds maximum – and for anti-mine rifles and possibly light machine guns, carried on the bridge wings. There is no evidence that any gun was fired from Creosol during the loss.

Although no contemporary photographs of the Creosol appear to have survived, there are images of many of her sister ships including the two others also built at Shorts during the Great War – RFA Sprucol and RFA Teakol. Both would go on to have eventful careers.

Sprucol herself was torpedoed and badly damaged in July, 1918, but managed to reach the Humber estuary under her own power. Images show her in dry dock with a gaping hole in her side – it took four months to repair her.

She was purchased by the Anglo American Oil Co Ltd in March 1920, after which she was renamed Juniata.

After a long and successful career, her final act was to play a vital role in the Second World War.

In April 1940, she was deliberately scuttled by the Admiralty at Scapa Flow, in the Orkney Islands, as a blockship, one of several designed to protect the important British naval base by preventing access to enemy forces.

She was raised for scrapping in 1949, but her poor condition meant she could not be towed to a shipbreaking yard.

Instead, Juniata was towed to Orkney's Inganess Bay where her rusting bow section is still visible today, a short distance out from the sandy beach at the end of the main runway at Kirkwall Airport.

Like the Sprucol, the diesel-engined RFA Teakol was sold after the armistice.

Although the RFA seemed to dislike the early hot bulb engines, as that type of diesel was known, the commercial world did not and ex-Teakol was in service well in to the 1950s.

Sold to Shell Tankers (Engine Oil) and renamed San Dario in 1920, she spent most of the Second World War on inland water work on the Manchester Ship Canal.

San Dario continued in service until she was broken up at Grays, in Essex, in September 1957.

Today, the Creosol is recognised at one of the UK's most important shipwrecks, one of just 36 military wrecks designated under the Protection of Military Remains Act.

This means divers may visit, but not enter the wreck, remove or interfere with items without permission – and perhaps that is why there appears to be no recently published reports describing her present condition.

The most recent report for the UK Hydrographic Office dates back to November 1999 and was carried out by North-East diver Ron Young.

At that time Mr Young described the wreck as "very substantial", standing up to seven metres high and lying on a seabed of fine sand, gravel and mud.

Mr Young's observations seem to challenge the contemporary report provided by UC-17, which suggested that the stern of the Creosol had broken away during the sinking.

Writing on a divers’ website in 2010, Mr Young said: “The bridge structure is gone from the bows and accommodation has collapsed in, but much of the vessel is still largely intact with a walkway down the centre and lots of pipe-work showing.

"The wheelhouse navigational equipments are, or were, still there, including the very ornate solid brass pedestal mounted telegraph, compass-binnacle and brass pedestal mounted steering helm, complete with the remains of half of the wooden wheel.

"The bronze screw and hydraulic steering is still in place and the wreck has at least two trawl nets entangled up on it.”

It would be interesting to know if the wreck of the Creosol remains in good condition, a century after she was sunk. Anyone who has information can contact Andrew White on 01325-505054, or via email:

  • Thanks to the Maritime Archaeology Sea Trust for the use of its research carried out into the wreck, drawn from various archive sources. Thanks also to Chris White of the Historical RFA website – – the definitive source of information on the Royal Fleet Auxiliary Service and to Mike Day for the use of just a fraction of his extensive collection of photographs relating to RFA vessels.