Robert ‘Robbie’ or ‘Bob’ Leith was born above a shop in Everton Brow, Liverpool, Lancashire, England, on 12th June 1885, one of the eight children of Robert and Margaret Leith, (née Simpson). His brothers and sisters were John, born in 1878, Mary born in 1880, Margaret, born in 1882, Sarah, born in 1883, William, born in 1887, Janet, born in 1890 and Alexander, (Alec), born in 1893. Robbie Leith was easily recognisable because of his reddish-gold hair, which was a family trait. The family home was later at 17 Longland Road, Liscard, Wallasey, Cheshire.
He was educated at the Blue Coat School in Liverpool, and in 1906, he joined the Marconi Marine Communications Company and was thus one of the earliest ships’ wireless operators. Family lore tells the story that his younger brother Alec set up a wireless set in the attic at Longland Road and as Robbie Leith’s ship was entering the River Mersey, he would send messages to him. Not surprisingly, Alec Leith also eventually became a Marconi operator.
Robbie Leith engaged as Telegraphist, on board the Lusitania at Liverpool on 16th April 1915 and reported for duty at 7 a.m., the following day, when the liner left the River Mersey for the very last time.
When he engaged, his monthly wage was stated as £0-1s-0d., (£0.5p.) which must have been a token payment to allow him to become an official crew member. It is possible, therefore, that his wages were paid by The Marconi Marine Communications Company who subcontracted his services to The Cunard Steam Ship Company. His previous ship had been the S.S.
Apart from manning the wireless equipment, a role he shared with Assistant Telegraphist David W. McCormick, Robert Leith’s duties included receiving cable messages, both private ones for passengers and also official ones from the Admiralty. By this time of the war, all ships of the Mercantile Marine sailed under Admiralty instructions and all official messages, even from their own shipping lines, had to be routed through Admiralty channels. Thus, both Leith and McCormick would have intercepted the messages sent by the Admiralty prior to the sinking, although they would have been prevented from disclosing the nature of their contents afterwards.
Robbie Leith survived the sinking and played a prominent part in the subsequent rescue of so many of the passengers and crew.
A.A and M. Hoehling in their book The Last Voyage of the Lusitania, described what happened after the liner was struck: -
Marconi operator Robert Leith sprinted out of the Second Class dining-room, through the passageways, and up the ladder to relieve his junior assistant at the key. Within seconds, he had tapped out, almost reflexively:
Come at once, big list, 10 miles south Old Head Kinsale
He repeated it, and again, followed by the call letters, MSU, noting all the while that the ship’s electric power was weakening. He eyed the emergency dynamo in a corner of his radio shack. .....
Then, the ammeter needle on the transmitter panel wavered, came back, sank to 0, and stayed there. Leith tapped the glass face. The ship’s generators had failed.
He left his chair and quickly switched on the emergency dynamo, with his own power supply from storage batteries. The sparks danced from his key once more:
Come at once. Big list. Ten miles south Old Head Kinsale.
The clock above the transmitter read 2.14 p.m.
The letters MSU were the Lusitania’s call sign registered with the Board of Trade. He continued to send out the distress call as the liner listed more and more heavily to starboard, holding on to his transmitter panel to steady himself until eventually: -
Marconi Operator Leith, now drenched in sweat, tirelessly flashing the SOS, knew the ship was going down. He could hardly hang on to his transmitter because of the list. Now, frantically, he altered the call:
Send Help Quickly. Am Listing Badly!
By this time, the list had increased alarmingly and the bows were almost submerged.
The wireless operator ceased sending the distress message. Now he produced a small camera and, balancing himself uncertainly on his knees, took a picture looking forward.
“What a snap this will make!” he observed.
Saloon passenger Henry Burgess from Shipley in Yorkshire also encountered Robert Leith at about this time and watched him take photographs. He described his experiences in his local newspaper,
The Shipley Times and Observer: -
As for myself, I went to the Marconi house and asked if a message had been got away. The operator said “Yes, but you had better get hold of this, old man, (throwing me an office chair), as you may want it.” I did not take the chair but I went over to the starboard side and saw that now the water was nearly up to the level of the boat deck. ..... The Marconi man came out of his office at that time and began to take photographs, which struck me as a cool proceeding. I don’t know whether he saved himself and his photographs.
Perhaps the photographs never came out, because none ever came to light afterwards.
Another saloon passenger, Oliver P. Barnard, from London, had a remarkably similar experience, which must have happened at about the same time. His story, told in
The Bradford Daily Telegraph on 10th May 1915 and other newspapers of the day, stated: -
I reached the funnel deck and crossed over to look at the starboard side. There I came across two Marconi operators. They were sending out their ‘S.O.S.’. The explosion had disorganised the main wireless room and they were working the emergency apparatus. I asked the wireless operators how they were getting on, and at that precise moment they received an answer to their call. A moment later the apparatus was smashed.
This latter fact does not seem likely in view of other testimonies, as Robbie Leith continued to use the emergency apparatus, once the ship’s main power had stopped working, until he decided to abandon ship. Nevertheless, Bernard continued: -
One of the operators offered me a swivel chair to go down into the water. His colleague took out a pocket Kodak and going down on his hands and knees on the deck, which was now at an angle of about 35 degrees, took a solitary snapshot of the scenes forward. It would have been a wonderful photograph, but the film was destroyed in the water.
After his death, The Liverpool Daily Post briefly told of Leith’s experiences on the
Lusitania. It stated: -
When the Lusitania was torpedoed Mr. Leith was at luncheon, the second wireless operator being on duty. Mr. Leith returned to the wireless cabin to send out the S.O.S., and remained on duty until the ship was on the verge of sinking and he was ordered to the boats.
He managed to jump into a lifeboat which had already been launched, and after many hours in this boat, was taken to Queenstown in a boat which had been sent to pick up survivors. His behaviour, and that of his assistant, were in the best traditions of the service.
The second wireless operator was, of course, Assistant Telegraphist David McCormick.
According to his eldest daughter Mrs. Averill Sloane, when he jumped into the lifeboat, he landed rather badly injuring his stomach, which gave him problems for weeks afterwards. It may also have contributed to his eventual death!
When the official enquiry into the sinking convened in June 1915, Robert Leith was called to give evidence, and even though he was not officially on duty at the time, he confirmed that two
government messages had been received from a wireless coastal station on the morning that the liner was torpedoed. He was not allowed to elaborate on these messages, however, whose substance is now not known, as they have been subsequently “lost”. It is possible, however, that they notified Captain Turner of the presence of the
U-20 in the area and maybe even ordered him to put into Queenstown.
Having been rescued from his lifeboat and landed at that port, Telegraphist Leith eventually made it back to Wallasey but never served at sea again. Instead, he took a shore posting on the inspection staff of the British Wireless Marine Service for the Liverpool area. It was a position he was to hold until his death, by which time he had been associated with Marconi Marine Communications for 27 years. He never completely got over his
Lusitania experiences, however, and suffered nightmares about the sinking for many years afterwards.
In 1916, he married Anne Louise Beddome and they set up home first in Massy Park, Liscard, where the first of their two daughters, Averill Beddome Leith, was born in April 1919 and then they moved to Rullerton Road, Liscard, where their second daughter, Audrey Estelle Leith, (always know to her father as ‘Derry’) was born in August 1923. From there they moved to Harvey Road, Liscard, in 1929.
When the Tower Hill memorial to the Missing of the Mercantile Marine was unveiled in 1928, Robert Leith was one of those chosen to represent wireless officers who were lost during the war and he was presented to Queen Mary, who carried out the unveiling.
When he arrived home after the sinking, the contents of his pocket consisted of one gold half sovereign, one silver three penny piece and the brass key to the Marconi radio cabin. His mother had this key silver plated and later on, his daughter Averill had it placed in a small frame. This historic souvenir of the sinking is still in the family’s possession!
In one of those coincidences which seem to follow the story of the Lusitania, in the early years of the Second World War, Robbie Leith’s second daughter Derry, who was a member of The All Nation’s Club in Guildford happened to mention her
Lusitania connection to a man who was visiting there. It turned out that the man’s father had been a crew member of a fishing trawler which had helped to rescue survivors from the sinking. His father had told him that the trawler was able to get to the scene of the disaster so comparatively quickly because of the speed and accuracy of the S.O.S. messages which Robbie Leith had so assiduously sent out under such extreme pressure!
Robert Leith died on 18th October 1933 at his home in Harvey Road, Wallasey at the comparatively early age of 48 years, after a long fight against stomach cancer. He had had three major haemorrhages and the specialist who attended him at the time, discovered evidence of stomach damage consistent with a severe blow probably caused by a fall! Despite the severity of his illness, he remained cheerful and happy, always laughing and joking to the end. He was also blessed by a very happy marriage!
He was buried in Rake Lane Cemetery, Wallasey, - the same cemetery where Captain Turner had been buried just four months earlier - and his remains lie there today. His wife Anne died in June 1960, aged 78 years. There is no mention of the
Lusitania connection on his headstone.
It was not until nearly two years after his death - and the 20th anniversary of the sinking of the liner, that Robert Leith’s own account of his experiences of 7th May 1915, came to light. On his death-bed, he had been determined to record his part in the sinking and having written it down for his wife Anne, she was reluctant to have it made public after he did in fact die. However, she relented when the anniversary was approaching, and the following account appeared in
The Sunday Chronicle, on Sunday 5th May 1935: -
Illness has given me leisure at last, the opportunity to look back into the past, and I find myself criticising half-forgotten deeds, enjoying well-remembered pleasures.
There is a memory about which I want to write this morning - the sinking of the Lusitania by a German U-boat in 1915, the event which drowned 1,198 innocent souls and eventually brought America into the war on our side.
I was the Lusitania’s senior wireless operator. Memories flow fast enough to choke my brain, so it would be best if I started out at the beginning, and tried to remember more gently.
The story really begins when, as a boy, I saw the Lusitania slip down the Mersey, blazing with lights, on her maiden voyage. The thought never occurred to me that she could be bound up with my own life - that this new wonder ship should one day call for help through the agency of my fingers.
The next part of the story opens many years later when on 1st May 1915 the Lusitania left New York for Liverpool. I was senior wireless operator and David McCormack
(sic) was the assistant,
On the morning of Friday, May 7th at 2 a.m. I came off watch, and at 2.15 a.m.
(sic) I sat down to lunch. The soup was placed in front of me by a steward; a woman passenger remarked, "You're very late Mr. Leith ..... " Suddenly my soup plate went jumping and my ears filled with the thunder of the explosion. My mind retains a flash of the few faces around me ..... blank astonishment rather than fear and no sense of anything catastrophic.
In the pause that followed I left the table with the gaping faces about me and ran for the stairs. Halfway up the companion-way a woman was standing irresolutely with her hands on the shoulders of two children. I brushed past, but remembered their faces again when I found them two days later in one of the improvised mortuaries at Queenstown.
As I ran for the wireless cabin and the boat deck I saw men and women crying; "They've done it at last ..... They've done it ..... What shall we do?"
The list which the ship had taken increased alarmingly; A deluge of water swept me to the rails and only a lucky grip saved me from parting company with the Lusitania. The fresh water tanks had overflowed. The ventilators on the upper deck were belching a mixture of steam, coals and miscellaneous wreckage which made clear the hell that was brewing in the stokehold.
McCormack (sic) had the motor ready running, but had received no orders to touch the key. One needed no orders to send the S.O.S. Stokehold ventilators don't belch steam and coal grape shot for nothing.
The story of the next 20 minutes has never been and never will be told in full. There were men who screamed as they died of their burns in the stokehold, and gallant gentlemen who gave away their lifebelts. There was A.G. Vanderbilt standing with his feet wide apart at the entrance to the saloon with a cigarette between his lips and a mildly interested expression on his face.
This was the famous New York millionaire Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt, who, like his valet Ronald Denyer, perished in the sinking after making valiant attempts to rescue others.
With McCormack's (sic) help I wedged myself into position in front of the transmitting key. As the minutes slipped by there was time to be afraid, desperately afraid.
A passenger looked in through the door with a cheery smile and at the same moment a member of the crew ran across our vision shouting, "The watertight doors are all right, they're all right, don't worry!" All three of us laughed. The ship had such a list that a child could have seen that she was due for the final plunge within a few minutes.
It is likely that the passenger mentioned was either Oliver Bernard or Henry Burgess. The account continued: -
My grin was probably a little sickly as I said goodbye to McCormack (sic)
who had decided to go down with the ship in the hope of finding a piece of wreckage on which to float away. The rail of the upper deck was almost level with the sea. The sun was still shining and the glassy water was dotted with hundreds of white faces, waterlogged boats and the bobbing heads of men who were still swimming. Nearer at hand smashed boats dangled from davits like toys, while on the other side of the vessel I could see men and women climbing out to walk into the sea on the iron plates of the ship's side.
I found a tiny waterlogged boat still attached to the davits now level with the sea, in which there was only one other man. He was hacking at the falls with his penknife to cut her clear. I jumped in. We got clear, but a new danger threatened us. The great funnels were dropping down on us.
Down they came, lower and lower, until I could reach one of them and shove us clear. Then the funnel bobstay threatened to cut us in half. We slipped under it. The funnel tops reached the water, and the sea gushed into their black chasms. A women was swept in front of us on the current into the funnel, to be belched out again. She was picked up, revived and lived to tell the tale.
This was second cabin passenger Margaret Gwyer, a newly married minister's wife who was later plucked from the sea and survived to be landed at Queenstown. Telegraphist Leith's account continued: -
As we drifted away, the funnels ceased their downward movement, and the Lusitania was almost on an even keel. The bows dipped, the stern came up high into the air until the little figures clinging to her rails looked no bigger than flies. Then down she went, sliding slowly through the sea, leaving behind a plateau of water which boiled and gushed and tossed bodies like corks in a mill stream.
Then the plateau of water flattened and calmed, the smooth swell spread its glass-like finish over the tomb of the Lusitania, the white faces of the dead drifted past us, the living cried out "A boat, a boat!". Our own little boat was sinking and we transferred to a lifeboat and were eventually picked up by a fishing smack.
At Queenstown, McCormack (sic) and I were re-united. He had gone down with the ship and had been caught in the vortex of water closing over his head. Yet he told me that the suction had been nothing like so serious as everyone had expected and he had been picked up by a boat after bobbing to the surface.
Wearing a borrowed coat and a mackintosh, it was my business to wander round the mortuaries, identifying the pathetic faces, while a mile or two out to sea, the gulls swooped and circled in noisy requiem over the grave of the wonder ship that had been my boyhood pride and ambition.
Register of Births, Marriages and Deaths, 1891 Census of England and Wales, 1901 Census of England and Wales, Bradford Daily Telegraph, Cunard Records, Last Voyage of the Lusitania, Liverpool Daily Post, Lusitania, Derry Perrin, PRO BT 100/345, Averill Sloane, Sunday Chronicle, Wallasey News, Jane E. Wilson, Wirral Globe.