The 2,979 tonnes merchant steamer the SS Wenvoe was built in 1894 by the Gray Company of Hartlepool and owned by a prominent Cardiff shipping family, the Morels. Ships like the SS Wenvoe, which were used to transport a variety of cargoes, helped Cardiff to become a port of worldwide importance in the years leading up to the First World War. These ships and their crews played a brave role in supplying the country during the conflict. The war however led to tragedy for the SS Wenvoe, albeit under a different name. Sold to French owners in 1916, the SS Wenvoe was renamed the Bayvoe, although due to wartime restrictions it had to remain under the British Flag.

From the start of the Great War in 1914, Germany pursued a highly effective U-boat campaign against merchant shipping. At first, U-boats obeyed 'prize rules' which meant surfacing before attacks on merchant shipping. This allowed time for the crew and passengers time to get away. As the war progressed and allied detection improved, this policy was abandoned. U boat attacks intensified and in late 1917 and early 1918 several Cardiff based ships were hit.

On 9 January 1918, Bayvoe, on a voyage from Portland to Bordeaux with a cargo of wheat, was targeted and sunk off the coast of Brittany by a German U-boat. Tragically, four crewmen, all merchant seamen from civilian backgrounds, lost their lives.

Their origins give a strong indication of the cosmopolitan character of Cardiff at the time. The youngest, a mess room steward, was 19 and from Turkey. The fatalities also included an engineer from Riga, fireman and trimmer from Bombay and a cook from Greece.

The submarine which torpedoed and sunk the Bayvoe was under the command of 31 year old Walter Roehr. Roehr was a very successful U boat commander, with several military decorations, including the Iron Cross 1st Class. His U84 submarine was responsible for sinking 1 warship and 28 merchant ships.

Attacks on SS Birchgrove and SS Cardiff

In an indication of Cardiff’s contribution to the war effort, two more local ships suffered attacks around this time. Roehr had already been responsible for sinking the SS Birchgrove, carrying goods from Penarth to Bordeaux, the previous month. The very day after sinking the Bayvoe (9 January), Roehr attacked and severely damaged the SS Cardiff 20 miles off the French coast near Lorient. In spite of these successes, his story did not end well, as his submarine was itself sunk off Penmarch, France just 5 days later with the loss of all officers and crew. The SS Cardiff was later sold on to a German company, Schulte and Bruns. In a final twist of fate, the SS Cardiff, as the renamed Konsult Schulte, was sunk by the allies in a Norwegian fjord in 1941.