“Torpedo sir! The stern’s blown off, sir! Oh Lord – the poor boys!”
It was 12.52am, November 19, 1917.
A torpedo from the German submarine UB-40 had just struck the stern of the S.S Aparima near the Isle of Wright, off the south English coast.
In command was Captain Gerald F Doorly, who was thrown into the door of the chart room, listening to the shout from his second that they’d been hit.
Below deck in the stern, young cadets, many of them just out of high school, had been sleeping.
Of the 30 cadets on board, 17 were killed, including three from Christchurch – Geoffrey Bargrove, 16, Donovan O’Bryen Hoare, 18, John Frederick Proudfoot, 16, and Ernest Sutherland (age unknown).
There was a roar of rushing water and the stern sunk, sending the bow of the ship upwards.
In a matter of minutes, the Aparima slipped below the surface.
Bargrove had been on the vessel for less than three months. The Aparima was a New Zealand slow steamer used by the English admiralty to ferry cargo around the British coast.
A year earlier, the Germans had started targeting merchant vessels, and parents of cadets were told they could take their sons off the ships. Many families didn’t; they did not want to be seen as letting their country down.
The cadets were unpaid, instead gaining seagoing experience on the cargo steamer, as part of training for their three-year cadetship.
Captain Doorly had set the Aparima on a zig-zag course, as close to the coast as he dared, after being warned there had been a sighting of an enemy submarine near the French coast – and within striking distance.
Submarine warfare was relatively new and the UB-40 was one of the best in the business. After the war, it would be revealed the submarine had sunk 100 ships.
The slow Aparima was easy pickings. Steaming at 12 knots, she had moved slowly from London to Barry in South Wales for coaling. She had no chance.
Fifty-five were killed in the attack, including 24 New Zealanders. The crew also included men from Britain, India and Australia.
Fifty-four – including Captain Doorly – survived, clinging to row boats and wreckage in the icy waters. There were 26 on one lifeboat and 17 on a gig boat. They rowed looking for other survivors, a bright blue flare went up and soon they found a raft.
Clinging to it was Thomas Ewart Bevan, 15, of Wellington, the youngest cadet on the Aparima.
Later he would describe being flung off this bunk when the torpedo hit.
“Something hurled me out of my bunk into the sea, I thought. But in a moment I knew I was still in what was left of our cabin, because as I swirled round and round in water, I bumped against bunks.”
Bevan survived by being sucked up a 3m ventilator in the centre of the cabin deckhead. He was shot up out of a cowl and landed on top of a life raft in the ocean. “It seems a wonderful thing, but it was on that raft; it must have slid off the boat deck and hit against the ventilator just as the stern began to sink.”
Bevan later went on to become the Hawkes Bay harbourmaster.
Bargrove’s death was a “devastating blow” for his New Brighton family. He was the youngest of four children.
His parents lived in Seaview Rd, running the Bargroves Drapery and Clothing Emporium.
He was survived by his brother Stanley, who was a radio operator during the war, and two sisters, Violet and Grace.
Bargrove attended New Brighton District School, where he received prizes for attendance in 1912 and 1913, and Christchurch Boys’ High School for one year.
Coastal Ward city councillor David East is also a descendant of the Bargrove family.
His grandfather was Stanley Bargrove, Geoffrey’s brother.
“My great-grandparents were still alive (when Geoffrey passed). I think it was quite a devastating blow to the family. He was never really spoken of . . . for my great-grandparents, it was a bitter blow.”
“We never really found out a huge amount about the family
. . . it was probably just how death was treated in those days. You had a period of grieving and mourning for someone who was lost, but you didn’t commemorate it eternally afterwards,” East said.
Due to the cadets being unpaid, their parents were unable to claim ‘Seaman’s Compensation’ from the Government.
Hoare’s mother, Florence, said of the loss: “Although not actually a dependent, I was looking forward to the expiry of his three years’ cadetship when my son and only child would make such progress in life as to enable him to make some money spent on his education and later on help to keep me from poverty in old age.”
Proudfoot’s mother, Mary Proudfoot, who was also a widow, said following his death “the awfulness of it is too dreadful.”
“I wish to state that I am a widow without any means. This boy whom I have lost was an only child and I was expecting his assistance to help me in my old age.”
Bargrove was posthumously awarded the British War Medal and the Mercantile Marine Medal.
Bargrove is commemorated at London’s Tower Hill Memorial for Merchant Marine casualties, along with Hoare and Proudfoot. There is no detail about Sutherland.
The memorial is for those whose bodies were never recovered.
Due to a lack of information available, it is unclear whether some of the other cadets were also from Christchurch.
The next of kin of every person who died at sea during the war was given a memorial plaque, also known as a ‘dead man’s penny.’
Bargrove’s penny is now with one of his descendants in their Redcliffs home, overlooking the sea.
Jan Bargrove’s late husband Robert, was a joiner and woodwork teacher and made an ornament out of it, by placing it inside a small wooden ship’s wheel.
As for the Aparima, she lies on the seafloor, 42m deep off the south coast of England. It is possible to dive down to see the wreck.
The UB-40, which had been under the command of Oberleutnant Hans Howaldt during the attack, was commissioned in August 1916. It was scuttled in the Belgian city of Ostende in October 1918 as the Germans retreated.
•Some information in this story was obtained from an article on wargraves.co.nz – They received no pay. Office Cadets of the Steamship Aparima by Phil Lascelles.