Commander of the Belfast Regiment Irish National Volunteers lost on HMS Hampshire

Today marks the Centenary of the sinking of HMS Hampshire with Lord Kitchener on aboard.

On 5 June 1916, HMS Hampshire left the Royal Navy’s anchorage at Scapa Flow, Orkney, bound for Russia. The Secretary of State for War, Lord Kitchener, was on board as part of a diplomatic and military mission aimed at boosting Russia’s efforts on the Eastern Front.

At about quarter to nine in the evening, in stormy conditions and within two miles of Orkney’s northwest shore, she struck a mine laid by German submarine U-75.

There were at least 28 Irish sailors lost on HMS Hampshire.

One of them was the ship’s surgeon, Dr Hugh Francis McNally from Belfast, son of the principal of Raglan Street Boy’s School on the Falls Road.  McNally, an ex St Malachy’s pupil had studied Medicine at Queen’s University and was a member of the Queen’s Officer Training Corps.

He joined the Irish National Volunteers at its formation and was immediately appointed company officer.  On the retirement of Captain Berkeley he was appointed Commander of the Belfast Regiment of with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel.

At the start of the First World War, he joined the National Volunteers. He was a magnificent organiser, and was responsible for the 1915 parade in Dublin.  Newspaper reports at the time note that he ‘his name will always be remembered by the Belfast National Volunteers with the kindliest feelings’.  On receiving his degree from Queen’s University, he joined the Royal Navy, giving his service ‘in the cause of humanity’.

His obituary notes ‘By his death a bright future has been cut short, while his loss to the Volunteer movement will be widely regretted.’

The sinking of HMS Hampshire was a grievous blow to the Allied war effort. The British Empire lost Lord Kitchener, the Secretary of State for War, whose organisational ability ensured that Britain had an army, of sufficient size, to be able to stand alongside her Allies in a major European conflict. Kitchener was a personality who was instantly familiar to all British people, both young and old, whose death was mourned as if he had been a close relative.

In addition to the crew, who numbered around 650, was Kitchener’s delegation, consisting of military officers, politicians and their staffs, who also went down with the Hampshire.

Only 12 men, all from the Ship’s company, survived the disaster.

Lord Kitchener, left, is seen aboard the HMS Iron Duke on June 5, 1916, the day before his ill-fated voyage on the HMS Hampshire. (National Army Museum archives)

Lord Kitchener, left, is seen aboard the HMS Iron Duke on June 5, 1916, the day before his ill-fated voyage on the HMS Hampshire. (National Army Museum archives)

Never mind the trenches! Experiences of British sailors during the First World War by Simon Smith

The ongoing commemoration of the Great War reveals just how much this episode of our history continues to interest and influence our understanding of the past. However, the Great War continues to be studied primarily as a land-based conflict despite the Royal Navy’s crucial role. Ask someone about Jutland and they will probably look perplexed. Much remains to be done to put the navy back into the public memory of the war, and my own research is working towards this. It considers the personal experience of British sailors during the war as expressed in their diaries, particularly the collection held by the National Museum Royal Navy Portsmouth.[1]

This blog will give a brief insight into my findings so far.

The poignant image of the Great War is of young men rushing to the colours full of patriotic fervour. Surprisingly, little research has been done on sailors’ displays of war enthusiasm. This is especially interesting as many sailors were not volunteers: the navy was a career in those days where men joined at a young age.[2] Yet sailors’ diaries reveal excitement and celebrations amongst seamen when war was declared. Ships left port cheered by other vessels, and men proudly recorded their first encounters with German ships.[3] Further, diaries repeatedly refer to the “long awaited scrap” with the enemy.[4] When they did meet, British sailors boasted of the Germans’ poor gunnery in comparison to their own and clearly there was a distinct belief in the Royal Navy’s superiority, which reflects the latent imperialistic sentiment in British society at the time.[5] Yet, not all were caught up with war fever; Walter Dennis recorded that he knew of a number of sailors who were relieved to get posted overseas away from any real action.[6]

However, prolonged warfare, understandably, had a noticeable effect upon sailors. Despite the distancing effect of technology, sailors remained part of the killing machine which some enthusiastically embraced, becoming numb to the brutalities of war. [7] Interestingly few historians have considered this. One sailor – known as Wood – recorded shelling Turkish forts at Gallipoli as “amusing”.[8] This is further demonstrated by the practice of collecting war souvenirs. Seamen often served in support of the army which allowed them ready access to items such as helmets, rifles and bullets.[9] The impact of curios has been widely considered amongst soldiers but, again, sailors have so far been overlooked.[10] Their obvious engagement in this practice suggests a desire for immediacy, which was not an option for soldiers. It would be interesting to compare the diaries of artillerymen serving at the front, and see whether they encountered similar experiences.[11]

Yet, despite sailors’ interaction with killing, not all became numb to the brutalities. Witnessing the sinking of ships or even hearing about losses was traumatic. For example Walter Dennis recorded being ‘rather concerned’ as to the fate of one of his friends lost at sea.[12] Sailors were acutely aware that if their ships were sunk then death was likely, which made moments such as these particularly sobering. It is not surprising that some succumbed to psychological stresses, or in their words had ‘a tile loose’.[13] Sailors had to develop their own coping mechanisms to deal with the stress of everyday life; these were similar to those developed by soldiers, such as humour. Reflecting on battles many became flippant about the dangers experienced. One diarist, Henry Welch, recalled: ‘One shell burst on the water’s edge… Ye gods! it was lovely – only a trifle further and there would have been a few gaps among us.’[14] Coping with pressure was essential.

It is clear that personal histories of the Great War continue to find a receptive audience as more people become interested in their own history. The opportunity is there for the navy to make up lost ground. The NMRNP’s on-going project, Hear My Story, is a step in the right direction and forms a new twentieth century exhibition collating personal memories and public interaction. [15] Another interesting project is the AHRC funded Gateways project which provides centres to encourage public interest through organised lectures and study days.[16] These projects show that there was much more to the Great War than mud, blood and the trenches. It is time to put the navy back in the picture and, as the diaries of Dennis, Fletcher, Welch and Wood show, each diary tells its own unique story, and there are many more to be uncovered.

Simon Smith read History at the University of Portsmouth followed by an MA in The History of War, Culture and Society. He is currently doing a PhD on Sailors and the Royal Navy c.1870-1939 as part of the University of Portsmouth’s Port Towns and Urban Cultures project.

Originally published for the NACBS here:  http://www.nacbs.org/blog/never-mind-the-trenches-experiences-of-british-sailors-during-the-first-world-war-by-simon-smith/

[1]The NMRNP holds approximately 200 diaries in its collection. Other comprehensive diary collections include the Imperial War Museum which has just re-opened with a new WW1 exhibition.
[2]For more information see Christopher McKee, Sober Men and True: Sailor Lives in the Royal Navy, 1900-1945, (London: Harvard University Press, 2002) and Brian Lavery, Able Seamen: the lower deck of the Royal Navy, 1850-1939, (London: Conway, 2011).
[3]RNM 1984/467: Diary of Wood.
[4]RNM 1980/115: Diary of Edwin Fletcher; RNM 1984/467: Diary of Wood; RNM 1980/82: Diary of W Dawson; Diary of Walter Dennis.
[5]RNM 1984/467: Diary of Wood.
[6]Diary of Walter Dennis. Diary digitized by McMaster University, Ontario Canada and available at http://pw20c.mcmaster.ca.
[7]See Edgar Jones, “The Psychology of Killing: The Combat Experience of British Soldiers during the First World War”, Journal of Contemporary History, 41, 2, (2006), 233; Joanna Bourke, An intimate history of killing: face to face killing in twentieth-century warfare, (London: Granta Books, 1999), 7.
[8]RNM 1984/467: Diary of Wood.
[9]Diary of Walter Dennis; RNM 1984/467: Diary of Wood.
[10]See Jones, “Psychology”, and Bourke, An intimate history, for further information of the study of soldiers.
[11]The Imperial War Museum does hold artillerymen’s diaries but these have not yet been considered.
[12]Diary of Walter Dennis.
[13]Diary of Walter Dennis.
[14]DOC: Diary of Henry Welch.
[15]See http://www.nmrn.org.uk/explore/hms-hear-my-story for further information on this project.
[16]The Arts and Humanities Research Council – see www.kent.ac.uk/ww1 for further information on this project.

First sinking of a U-boat by a Q-ship around the Irish Coast on 22 March 1916

First sinking of a U-boat by a Q-ship around the Irish Coast on 22 March 1916

100 years ago today on 22 March 1916 the commander of the German U-boat U-68 (pictured below) spotted a Merchant Navy vessel off the coast of SW Ireland near Dunmore Head and decided to attack.  He fired a torpedo which missed its target but, seeing the panic on board the merchantman, decided to surface in order to sink her with his gun.  Little did he realise he was attacking the 3200 tonne Q-Ship HMS Farnborough.

CaptureQ-Ship’s were merchantmen armed with concealed weaponry.  They were intended to lure submarines to the surface before exposing the weaponry, typically a deck gun, and opening fire upon the submarine.  The name ‘Q-ship’ is derived from the name of their WW1 base i.e. Queenstown, Co Cork.  One such Q-ship, HMS Result (built in Carrickfergus), is on display at the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum.

The term ‘Panic Stations’ originates with Q-ships.  Once a Q-ship was attacked, the order ‘Hands to Panic Stations’ would be given.  This would result in the crew acting panicked, possibly launching lifeboats to give the impression of abandoning ship, in order to draw attention away from the remaining crew who would be preparing to fire the weaponry.

On board HMS Farnborough, Lieutenant Commander Gordon Campbell ordered ‘Panic Stations’ upon seeing the torpedo.  The panic party got away in a lifeboat and the remaining crew readied the deck gun.  U-68 surfaced and closed in on Farnborough from astern which duly raised its White Ensign and opened fire hitting U-68 which quickly dived.  Farnborough manoeuvred into position and dropped a depth charge which lifted the bow of U-68 to the surface.  This allowed Farnborough to open fire gaining further hits on the submarine’s conning tower which soon disappeared beneath the surface.  Farnborough dropped two further depth charges which sealed the fate of the already sinking U-68 with the loss of all hands.

As a result of his actions, Lieutenant Commander Campbell was promoted to Commander and awarded a DSO.  HMS Farnborough was later torpedoed by U-83, beached and subsequently scrapped (see picture below).

Capture 2GRATEFUL, hired drifter, 25 March 1916, North Channel – 107grt, built 1907, Inverness-reg INS322, hired 2/15 as net drifter, 1-3pdr, Admiralty No.2399, 9 crew, Skipper W Ralph (He – Skipper John Reaich RNR), sailing in WNW force 8 gale and snow storm. Driven ashore 100yds from Lloyd’s Signal Station, Torr Head, Co Antrim (wi – in 55.11.50N, 06.03.45W); Coastguard called Portrush RNLI, but coxswain “reluctant to leave the harbour in such heavy seas”, later launched with another coxswain and volunteers from Portstewart as well as Portrush, reached the scene at 0900, but all crew already rescued by breeches buoy three hours before. Salvaged, served in WW2 (H/C/D/He/dk/wi)

BEGONIA, fleet sweeping sloop, 29 March 1916, Atlantic off S Ireland – Azalea-class, 1,200t, on patrol. Torpedoed by U.44 (Paul Wagenführ), towed into Queenstown; 2 ratings lost. Reconstructed at Haulbowline to resemble small coaster 1916-17, commissioned 8/17 as Q-ship Q.10 (Cn/D/qs/un)

ZYLPHA, Q-ship/special service ship, 12 April 1916, Atlantic off SW Ireland – ex-collier, 2,917grt, built 1894, in service from 9/15 as Q.6, 3-12pdr, Lt-Cdr John Macleod. Submerged U-boat attempted torpedo attack, but failed. Zylpha proceeded to Bantry Bay to alter her appearance (Cn/D/qs/sk)

BLUEBELL, fleet sweeping sloop, 23 April 1916, Irish waters – during the Irish Easter Rebellion, Bluebell intercepted German auxiliary Libau, disguised as Norwegian tramp SS Aud carrying arms in support of the Irish rebellion. Aud scuttled off Queenstown

GERMAN RAID ON LOWESTOFT AND YARMOUTH, 25 April 1916, North Sea – The German High Seas Fleet was expected to make a demonstration in the North Sea, possibly in support of the Irish Easter Rising which broke out on the 24th. Grand Fleet was ordered out, together with Harwich Force which included 5th LCS Conquest (broad pendant, Cdre Tyrwhitt), Cleopatra and Penelope, leader Lightfoot with 7 destroyers, followed by leader Nimrod with 8 more, then by two divisions of L-class destroyers operating with Dover Patrol. Sailing on the night of 24th/25th, Harwich Force ran up the East coast while destroyer Melampus with six Yarmouth-based submarines positioned them first between Southwold and the Hook of Holland, then in a more northerly position. The German 1st SG, less Seydlitz which struck a mine that morning, was sailing to bombard Lowestoft and Yarmouth. Harwich Force sighted the Germans about 0350 and tried to induce them to chase south, but instead Lowestoft was badly shelled around 0410. The 1st SG then headed north for Yarmouth, Harwich Force followed and probably helped save Yarmouth from a full half hour battlecruiser bombardment. Tyrwhitt opened fire on the German light cruisers at 0430, the battlecruisers stopped bombarding to support their cruisers, and were sighted at 0445, following which Tyrwhitt turned south and came under heavy, accurate fire. Cruiser Conquest, now at the rear of 5th LCS line was severely punished and destroyer Laertes damaged. The Germans now headed back home, their retirement covered by Flanders-based U-boats including UB.18 and UB.29 off Lowestoft/Yarmouth. Adm Beatty’s battlecruisers, Harwich Force and the submarines continued to search and seek action, then as Harwich Force returned home after recall, Penelope was torpedoed just before 1000 and patrolling submarine E.22 sunk around 1145:

BRADFORD, hired trawler, 28 October 1916, Atlantic off S Ireland – 163grt, built 1896, Grimsby-reg GY132, Consolidated Steam Fishing & Ice, hired 1915 (D – 11/14) as patrol vessel, 1-6pdr, Admiralty No.829, 12 crew, Skipper William Bruce RNR, believed Queenstown-based, took part in rescuing Lusitania survivors in 1915, on patrol. (dk – casualties dated lost 26th) – last seen at 1640 on the 26th, disappeared and believed foundered in gale off Old Head of Kinsale, Co Cork, presumed on the 28th (wi – in 51.30N, 08.30W); Skipper and 11 ratings lost, no survivors (H/Lr/C/D/He/ap/dk/wi; ADM.137/455)

FILEY, Admiralty trawler, 2 October 1916, Atlantic off N Ireland – 226grt, built 1914, Hull-reg H8, Hull Steam Fishing, purchased 1915, in service from 3/15, 1-12pdr, Admiralty No.1363, Skipper Daniel Stather RNR, serving as patrol vessel. Driven ashore in high winds and seas in Camusmore Bay, Tory Is, off Co Donegal, wrecked and abandoned; no lives lost. Salved 1917 (D/He – salved in 1917 and re-acquired July 1918), believed assigned new Admiralty No.3826, sold 1920 (H/Lr/C/D/He/dk/hw; ADM.137/282)

DAFFODIL, fleet sweeping sloop, 15 December 1916, believed southern Ireland – serving with 1st Sloop flotilla, Queenstown. Damaged in collision, one man DOI next day (dk/pl)

Mark McCrea

HMS CAROLINE TO OPEN JUNE 1 2016. SIX MONTHS TO GO!

The count-down has begun for the opening of one of the world’s most historically significant war ships. Urgent repairs to halt the deterioration of World War One light cruiser HMS Caroline were completed earlier this year making the ship safe for the next stage of restoration. Now the final leg of restoration and interpretative work can be completed to allow the ship to function as a world-class museum, a cross-community centre and a meetings and conferences venue.

National Museum of the Royal Navy Chief of Staff Captain John Rees OBE has been leading the complex funding and restoration programme in partnership with the Department for Enterprise, Trade and Investment. He says: “HMS Caroline is a living legend. We are breathing new life into what is an internationally significant piece of world history. We are particularly looking forward to the ship being ready for public opening on June 1 2016. This will mark the first stage of a series of phased openings. The second and third phases will see the ship dry docked for hull conservation works in the winter and then the completion of onshore facilities.

“This is a world class heritage asset and the only ship remaining from the Grand and High Seas Fleet of some 250 vessels.  We must not underestimate the value of this ship and the resonance of its history and position in Northern Ireland, so it is a matter of pride for us as well as a contribution to local communities that the ship is brought back to life as a museum, visitor and community centre.”

Enterprise, Trade and Investment Minister Jonathan Bell says: “As the last floating survivor of the Battle of Jutland, HMS Caroline is an integral part of the rich tapestry of maritime history at Titanic Quarter. I have no doubt it will prove to be a popular draw for tourists when it opens as a world class museum in six months’ time.”

The vessel has been based in Northern Ireland for over 90 years and has undergone the first stages of restoration which will eventually see it opened to the public as a world class museum and heritage visitor attraction. The opening date is due to coincide with the centenary of the Battle of Jutland on May 31 2016.

NMRN in a joint venture with Northern Ireland’s Department for Enterprise, Trade and Investment initially secured £1m from the National Heritage Memorial Fund to safeguard the ship, £11.5m from the Heritage Lottery Fund and £2.7m from the Northern Ireland Government to complete the restoration, preservation and interpretative work.

COMMEMORATION OF THE IRISH SAILOR

31st May 2016, the Centenary of the Battle of Jutland, is the chosen date to mark the contribution of all involved in war and life at sea 1914 – 1918 with a Commemoration to the Irish Sailor in the Great War.  The event will be run in Belfast next to Jutland’s only afloat survivor, HMS Caroline, and will include her official opening as a heritage visitor attraction.  The commemoration will connect people in maritime activity a hundred years ago with descendants, and to those engaged in similar activity today.

If you have links to sailors, fishing, shipbuilding or other maritime activity from 1914-18 and wish to be involved, please see here:  http://historyhubulster.co.uk/irishsailor/

HMS CAROLINE Project Phasing

The project is split into three distinct phases as outlined below:

PHASE 1The Ship: These works comprise of asbestos removal, ship adaptation, audio visual hardware and software and exhibition fit-out and interpretation fit-out.

PHASE 2Dry Docking: of the ship for conservation works to the hull

PHASE 3Visitor Centre & Landscaping: refurbishment works to the Pump House blocks 1-3 including the Alexandra dock

Schedule of opening

2016

May 31: Commemoration of The Irish Sailor. Centenary of Battle of Jutland ceremonies and events at Alexandra Dock.

June 1: HMS Caroline welcomes its first public visitors.

August: Landscaping of Alexandra Dock complete.

November:  HMS Caroline leaves Alexandra Dock for dry dock inspection and hull conservation works.

December: HMS Caroline returns to Alexandra Dock and new position close to Pump House and facing out to sea.

2017

May: Completion of Pump House restoration and installation of permanent ticketing office and visitor welcome centre.

caroline pic

North Belfast Remembers Job Opportunities

We are looking for three people to help with our project North Belfast Remembers. Application details at the bottom of the page.

Project:

A series of arts and heritage based events aiming to connect the local community with the Decade of Centenaries and the First World War.  It aims to engage the community with their local history and begin a dialogue about the place of remembrance in today’s society. It provides an opportunity for intergenerational storytelling aiming to enable older people and children to understand the importance of each other in the community.

NORTH BELFAST REMEMBERS PROJECT MANAGER

December 2015 – March 2016 (78 hours total / £12 per hour / Freelance)

Roughly 4 hours per week, rising to 8 hours per week in March 2016.

Role:

Project Management of 10 research workshops, 5 art workshops and a final larger scale event in March 2016

Essential:

3 years project management experience / an interest in history / ability to work to own timetable and within budget / time management skills /Ability to engage with all members of our community

Desirable:

Experience having worked with older people and children / knowledge of North Belfast particularly BT14 / BT15

_______________________________________________________________________________

NORTH BELFAST REMEMBERS ARTIST

5 x 60 mins children’s workshops in February and March 2016 (plus 5 x 60 mins prep time)

 (10 hours total / £30 per hour / Freelance)

Brief:

Artist for 5 arts workshops of 20 children each, aged 8 – 12 years old in community venues in North Belfast. The brief will be discussed in more detail with the chosen artist, but will involve decorating glass bottles.

Essential:

3 years arts experience / an interest in history / ability to work to own timetable and within budget / /Ability to engage with all members of our community / Experience working with children

Desirable:

Knowledge of North Belfast particularly BT14 / BT15

________________________________________________________________________________

NORTH BELFAST REMEMBERS RESEARCHER

December 2015  (20 hours research / £12 per hour / Freelance)

January – February 2016  (20 hours workshop delivery/ £12 per hour / Freelance)

Role:

Research of ww1 servicemen from North Belfast and delivery of 10 x 90 minute research workshops for older people in community venues in North Belfast. (plus 10 x 30 min prep time)

Essential:

3 years research experience / an interest in history / ability to work to own timetable and within budget / time management skills / ability to engage with all members of our community

Desirable:

Experience having worked with older people / knowledge of North Belfast particularly BT14 / BT15

___________________________________________________________________________________________________

Applications:

Please send cover letter and CV to research@historyhubulster.co.uk

Closing Date: Wednesday 25th November 2015

 

 

Please note this email is not monitored daily and we cannot acknowledge every application.

Belfast City Council 2015 (Master) CRC logo

WW1 Centenary: The loss of Anglo-Californian

ANGLO-CALIFORNIAN

ANGLO-CALIFORNIAN

The horse transport vessel Anglo-Californian sank off the south coast of Ireland on 4 July 1915 while en-route from Montreal, Canada to Avonmouth, England.  At the time she was carrying 927 horses destined for the Western Front.  At 0800 on 4th July, German submarine U39 surfaced a mile off the port beam of the Anglo-Californian as she was about 90 miles off Queenstown, Co Cork.  The Master, Lieutenant Frederick Parslow (Royal Naval Reserve) with his eldest son at the helm, took evasive action but U39 opened fire with her deck gun repeatedly hitting the vessel.  At 1030 the submarine ordered Parslow to stop and abandon ship.  Having received signals from local destroyers to delay, Parslow ignored the order much to the annoyance of U39 commander, Walter Forstmann, who opened fire on the vessel wrecking the bridge, lifeboats and superstructure.

Thomas M Henry “Unconquerable”

Thomas M Henry “Unconquerable”

U39 closed to 50 yards shooting at anything that moved but soon dived to avoid the approaching destroyers.

The Anglo-Californian was towed into Queenstown on 5 July.

Lt Parslow lost his life along with 21 others including Horseman David O’Neill from Belfast.

Parslow was awarded the Victoria Cross (VC) while his son and the chief engineer were awarded the Distinguished Service Cross.  Interestingly, Parslow was not a member of the Royal Naval Reserve (RNR) at the time of the incident.  He was posthumously awarded a commission as a RNR Lieutenant and then awarded the VC.

Parslow’s grave along with 9 others from his ship can be found at Cobh Old Church Cemetery, County Cork.

Research by Mark McCrea, Member, History Hub Ulster.

 

 

 

Lieutenant Frederick Parslow

Lieutenant Frederick Parslow VC citation

Lieutenant Frederick Parslow

Lieutenant Frederick Parslow

How 2291 lives were lost to sudden explosions on Royal Navy ships with 38 of Ulster’s men needlessly lost

Across the course of World War One, 5 Royal Navy warships were destroyed by internal explosions causing the deaths of 2291 sailors of which 98 were known Irishmen. 38 of the lost sailors were Ulstermen. These ships were HMS Bulwark lost 1914, HMS Princess Irene lost 1915, HMS Natal lost 1915, HMS Vanguard lost 1917 and HMS Glatton lost 1918.

HMS_Bulwark_(1899)

HMS Bulwark

On 26 November 1914, the 15,000-ton battleship, HMS Bulwark was moored on the Medway in Sheerness.  While the men on board were having breakfast, the ship suddenly exploded.  An eyewitness saw ‘a great volume of flame and smoke shot into the air. The ship seemed to split in two and then heeled over and sank’.

The explosion was heard across a 30 mile radius.  Once the smoke cleared no trace of the ship remained. The Times lead with the strapline Ship’s company almost eliminated. The Bulwark disappeared in three minutes. The explosion shook every building in the vicinity, and some of the debris was thrown six miles’.

The Belfast Newsletter printed an eyewitness statement ‘At first we could see nothing but when the smoke cleared a bit we were horrified to find that the battleship Bulwark had gone’.  He continues describing finding a body in the water ‘The poor fellow was terribly mutilated. One arm was torn off and hanging as if by a thread, while the body was terribly cut about. He looked as if he had been dragged for miles over rough stones, His clothing was in shreds and his flesh cut through’.

Stoker William Gray HMS Bulwark

Stoker William Gray HMS Bulwark

There was considerable damage in Sheerness and more than 700 men on the ship were killed. Winston Churchill reported the disaster to the House of Commons later that day, noting that only 12 had survived. There were rumours of sabotage or enemy action, but Bulwark was almost certainly destroyed after cordite was ignited and there may have been some mishandling of the powder charges.

30 Irish men were killed in the explosion, 7 of them from Ulster.

The Ulstermen were Seaman James Begley of Greencastle, Donegal aged 24, Stoker (1st) Jeremiah Byrne of Kilcar, Donegal aged 38, Seaman Edmund Finn of Red Bay, Antrim aged 34, Able Seaman James Thomas Gardner of HM Coastguard Station, Carrickfergus aged 46, Stoker Hugh Gilmour of Banbridge, aged 36, Stoker William Gray from Hogarth Street in Belfast aged 32 and Lieutenant Alexander Cyril Montagu from Cromore in Portstewart aged 24.

HMS Princess Irene

HMS Princess Irene

Cordite, the propellant that once hurled British bullets and shells, is notoriously unstable and less than six months later there was a second explosion on ocean liner Princess Irene built at Dumbarton in 1914 for Canadian Pacific Railways. She had been commandeered for war service as a minelayer and became HMS Princess Irene.  On the morning of 27 May 1915 while in the Medway for a refit, a huge explosion tore through the vessel, shaking the ground for miles around and showering the surrounding villages with bodies and debris.

The Belfast Newsletter reported that it ‘the explosion…was even more violent than that which accompanied the blowing up of the battleship Bulwark. Flying debris was scattered for a considerable distance, and a number of men on other ships in the vicinity were injured’. ‘A packet of butter which is known to have belonged to the vessel has been picked up in a garden in Newington, which is about 8 miles as the crow flies from Sheerness, and at the same place two towels bearing the words “Allan Line”, were picked up along with a large piece of wood bearing marks that it belonged to the Princess Irene’.

One mechanic working on a ship 1000 yards away was hit by debris and died the following day, and a little girl aged 9 was picked up dead on the Isle of Grain having been struck by a piece of iron from the ship. On Princess Irene 200 men died, along with 78 shipwrights, apprentices, skilled labourers and boys from nearby towns and villages. Once again sabotage was suspected, but the conclusion was that the mine charges were unstable and were awaiting replacement.

Stoker James Maxwell, HMS Princess Irene

Stoker James Maxwell, HMS Princess Irene

19 Irish men were killed in the explosion, 6 of them from Ulster.

The Ulstermen were Stoker (2nd class) James Larmour from Lilliput Street, Belfast aged 19, Stoker (2nd class) James Maxwell of Barbour Street, Greencastle aged 20, Able Seaman John McAdorey of Garmoyle street, Belfast aged 30, Stoker 2nd class Matthew McEnroe of Union Street, Derry aged 19, Leading Stoker John Carleton of Belgrave Street, Belfast aged 23 and Stoker (2nd class) Alexander McMurray of Bangor aged 22.

HMS Natal

HMS Natal

Just over six months later another explosion occurred near Cromarty, Firth on HMS Natal, a Warrior-class armoured cruiser. On 30th December 1915 the Captain was hosting a Christmas film show on board the warship. Invited along were wives of officers and nurses from a nearby hospital ship. Just as the party was starting at around 3.25pm, a series of massive explosions tore through the rear part of the ship and she capsized within 5 minutes.  Reports that she had been torpedoed by a German U-boat or detonated a mine were proven false when examinations of the wreckage revealed that the explosions were internal. The Admiralty court-martial concluded that the explosion was caused by an ammunition explosion, possibly due to faulty cordite. The Admiralty issued a list of the dead and missing that totalled 390 in January 1916, but did not list the women and children on board that day, perhaps embarrassed by the loss of non-combatants.  Losses are now listed between 400 to 421 people.

Stoker William McConkey, HMS Natal

Stoker William McConkey, HMS Natal

17 Irish men were killed in the explosion, 9 of them from Ulster.

The Ulstermen were Boy 1st class Francis Pasteur Goodman of Keady, Armagh aged 17, Stoker 1st class William McConkey of Agnes Street, Belfast aged 20, Armourer’s Crew John Stratton of Portadown, Armagh aged 20, Stoker 1st class William Walsh of Spamount Street, Belfast aged 26, Boy 1st class Robert Woodney of Queensland Street, Belfast aged 17, Able Seaman Henry McKee of Malone Road, Belfast aged 24, Carpenter’s Crew Thomas McKeown from Cookstown, Tyrone aged 23, Engine Room Artificer 4th Class Nathaniel Taylor from Rockvale, Katesbridge aged 22 and Stoker 1st class Thomas Newell of Lachagh street, Belfast, aged 22.

HMS Vanguard

HMS Vanguard

HMS Vanguard was a St Vincent-class dreadnought battleship built for the Royal Navy in the first decade of the 20th century. She spent her whole career assigned to the Home and Grand Fleets. Aside from participating in the Battle of Jutland her service during World War I generally consisted of routine patrols and training in the North Sea.  Just before midnight on 9 July 1917 at Scapa Flow, Vanguard suffered an explosion caused by an unnoticed stokehold fire heating cordite stored against an adjacent bulkhead in one of the two magazines which served the amidships gun turrets.  She sank almost instantly, killing an estimated 804 men with only two picked up alive.

In terms of loss of life, the destruction of the Vanguard remains the most catastrophic accidental explosion in the UK, and one of the worst accidental losses of the Royal Navy.

Able Seaman J McCracken, HMS Vanguard

Able Seaman J McCracken, HMS Vanguard

30 Irish men were killed in the explosion, 15 of them from Ulster.

The Ulstermen were Ordinary Seaman Alexander Baird from Upper Meadow Street, Belfast, aged 19, Stoker John Devine from Ballymoney, aged 32, Ordinary Seaman William Harvey, from City Street, Belfast, aged 18, Able Seaman Joseph McCracken of Crimea Street, Belfast aged 26, Stoker 1st class Samuel McIlvenny from Stratheden Street, Belfast aged 24, Naval Schoolmaster Hugh Robert Murray from Halliday’s Road, Belfast aged 22, Stoker 1st Class, William George Reid of Mervue Street, Belfast aged 23, Carpenter’s Crew Charles Magee Thompson from Gracehill, Ballymena aged 23, Midshipman Randal William McDonnell Johnston from Glynn, Co Antrim aged 17, Carpenter’s Crew Bernard Ferris from Co Derry, aged 22, Stoker 1st Class Hugh Fisher from Portaferry, Co Down, aged 27, Able Seaman Samuel Montgomery McCargo from Co Antrim aged 21, Carpenter’s Crew John Wilson Adams from Spittal Hill, Coleraine, aged 29, Stoker 1st class Thomas Rainey Agnew from Spamount Street, Belfast aged 23, Shipwright 2nd class John Neville from Cregagh Road, Belfast aged 37.

HMS Glatton

HMS Glatton

HMS Glatton and her sister ship Gorgon were originally built as coastal defence ships for the Royal Norwegian Navy, as Bjørgvin and Nidaros respectively. She was requisitioned from Norway at the beginning of World War I, but was not completed until 1918 although she had been launched over three years earlier.

On 16 September 1918, before she had even gone into action, she suffered a large fire in one of her 6-inch magazines. Attempts to deal with the fire failed and she had to be torpedoed to prevent an explosion of her main magazines that would have devastated Dover as well as other vessels nearby loaded with oil and ammunition.

Able Seaman William Brown, HMS Glatton

Able Seaman William Brown, HMS Glatton

It was found that the piling of clinker against the magazine bulkhead provided the source of the ignition of the cordite causing the explosion. Her wreck was partially salvaged in 1926, and moved into a position in the North Eastern end of the harbour where it would not obstruct traffic. It was subsequently buried by landfill underneath the current car ferry terminal.

2 Irish men were killed in the explosion, 1 of them was from Ulster.

The Ulsterman was Able Seaman William Thomas Brown of Jonesboro Street, Belfast aged 20.

These five ships, needlessly lost during World War One were not the victims of enemy action but rather the mismanagement of explosives and at least 2291 lives were lost.

A list of known Irish men on board these ships is available by contacting me by email.

There were 5 other Allied ships lost during the war to explosions. Italy lost the battleships Benedetto Brin and Leonardo-di-Vinci. Japan lost the battleship Kawachi and the battle cruiser Tsukuba and Russia lost the battleship Imperatritza Maria. A cordite explosion also occurred on board the Chilian ship Capitan Prat however this did not lead to the loss of the ship. In addition cordite handling problems caused 3 battlecruisers to fatally explode during the Battle of Jutland in 1916.

Research by Karen O’Rawe, Chair History Hub Ulster

Servicemen images courtesy of History Hub Ulster Member, Nigel Henderson at http://www.greatwarbelfastclippings.com

History Hub Ulster is a research group based in Belfast, but working on projects across Ulster.

 

 

Personal account of HMS Maidstone escape

Personal account of Republican internees escape from HMS Maidstone on 17 Jan 1972

History Hub Ulster recently interviewed Tom, a former Royal Navy Stoker from Bangor, who served on HMS Hartland Point in the early 1970s.  Here’s his account:

HMS Hartland Point

HMS Hartland Point

 “The Hartland Point was brought to Belfast and originally moored ahead of the Maidstone.  Before Harland Point’s arrival, prisoners, sailors and prison officers were all accommodated on the Maidstone which was not ideal.  In 1972 the decision was taken to move Hartland Point around to the stern of Maidstone.  Maidstone was to have her stern cut open, and Hartland Point her bow, to enable a gangway to be connected between the two.  This would afford the prison officers quick access on to the Maidstone when required.”

“As an electrical engineer, my duties were mainly maintenance.  Prisoners bunk lights would often fail.  When they reported it, it was my job to fix it.  I would be escorted by a prison officer onto the Maidstone and in to the prisoners’ accommodation.  It was quite scary at times!”

Tom was serving on board Hartland Point on 17th January 1972 when seven Republican prisoners escaped:

“Hartland Point had mooring cables connected from her stern to the bows of Maidstone.  When she was moved, the cables on Maidstone’s bows were left dangling.  Prisoners spotted the cables dangling outside the scuttles (portholes) and saw the opportunity to escape.  During the night, they managed to pull the ropes in to the scuttles and climb out on to them.  They used the ropes to swing themselves out to a point where they could get through the barbed wire, and descended into the icy cold water to make their escape.”

These men were referred to as ‘The Magnificent Seven’.  Their side of the story can be found at http://www.anphoblacht.com/contents/16314 (copied below):

HMS Maidstone in Belfast

HMS Maidstone in Belfast

The Magnificent Seven

BY ARAN FOLEY

This week 35 years ago, on 17 January 1972, seven republican internees escaped from the British prison ship, HMS Maidstone, moored at the coal wharf in Belfast docks, and swam to freedom. They achieved fame in news headlines across the world as ‘The Magnificent Seven’.

Originally a Royal Navy submarine depot ship, the Maidstone was used as an emergency billet for British troops. After the introduction of internment, though, of the original 226 people detained, 122 were held in the Maidstone in the most cramped and inhumane of conditions where opportunities for even the most basic of needs such as exercise were virtually non-existent. Gerry Adams was held there for a brief time.

Some of the internees had been planning an escape and the transfer of 50 internees to the new internment camp at Magilligan the day before meant they had to urgently push forward their plan.

The men — Jim Bryson, Tommy Tolan, Thomas Kane, Martin Taylor, Tommy Gorman, Peter Rodgers and Seán Convery — had noticed a seal swimming through the ring of barbed wire which surrounded the ship. The prisoners reasoned that the gap was also sufficient to allow a human through. They had also been tossing tin cans overboard to monitor the movements of the tide.

On the night of 16 January, the conditions were judged right and the escape bid was ready to go. The nervous tension was exacerbated by a late head-count of internees by guards, causing an unexpected delay of 20 minutes which was to almost scupper the escape’s success. The head-count over, the escape went ahead behind schedule.

In a scene reminiscent of a Second World War POW movie, the men camouflaged themselves with boot polish and covered themselves in butter to insulate themselves from the cold waters they would have to swim through if they were to make it to freedom. Cutting through a steel bar in a porthole, they clambered down the ship’s steel cable.

It took them 20 minutes to swim through the bitingly cold water. Several of the men who couldn’t swim had to be helped by their comrades. Despite this, and serious injuries inflicted by the barbed wire, all seven men made it ashore otherwise unscathed. The problem was that they had landed 500 yards down from the agreed rendezvous point with units of the IRA’s Belfast Brigade, waiting to take them to safe houses.

By the time the escapees had made it to the original meeting point, their comrades had left, believing that the non-appearance of the Maidstone men meant that the escape had been aborted.

This forced the escapees, cold and dripping wet, to improvise.

They commandeered a bus at Queens Road Terminus and drove across the city themselves. Peter Rodgers (clad only in his underpants!) approached a bus driver and asked him for a loan of his overcoat, explaining to the somewhat startled driver, and in something approaching the truth, that he had fallen in to the water. The driver handed over his coat and then set off on his route. On his return at 6.30pm he left the bus. The seven men clambered aboard. Rodgers, who had been a bus driver himself, took the wheel and off they sped. Reaction from the security men at the main gate was minimal, which is probably explainable by the fact that it was not every day they were confronted by the spectacle of a bus full of semi-naked men speeding out the gates.

During the journey they were spotted by a British Army patrol but upon entering the staunchly republican area of the Markets the patrol refused to follow them any further for fear of an ambush. Before British troops could surround the area, the men had been spirited away to different parts of Belfast and the British search was in vain.

Hours later, sitting in a drinking club, the escapees were much amused – as indeed were most of the country – by the appearance of one Colonel Tony Budd of the Royal Horse Artillery appearing on the TV news to assure them that all was in order. But everything wasn’t in order – the Magnificent Seven were out.

The Magnificent Seven escaped from the British prison ship, HMS Maidstone 35 years ago.

Centenary of the Battle of the Falklands

Battle of the Falklands – 08 Dec 1914

Prelude to Battle

Following the Battle of Coronel on 01 November 1914 off the coast of Chile, where the Royal Navy had suffered an embarrassing defeat at the hand of Admiral von Spee’s squadron, the Admiralty was making plans to redress the loss.  Admiral von Spee clearly realised his actions would not go unpunished. At a post battle celebration in Valparaiso in central Chile, he was given flowers whereupon he commented ‘these will do nicely on my grave’ and refused to drink to ‘the confusion of the British Navy’.

The Admiralty ordered two battlecruisers, HMS Invincible and HMS Inflexible, to sail south to engage von Spee’s squadron on 11 November 1914, despite being told by Devonport dockyard that Inflexible could not be ready until 13 November. The dockyard pulled together and both ships put to sea at 4.45pm on 11 November.

The location of von Spee’s squadron after Coronel was unknown.  Would he come through the Panama Canal into the Caribbean Sea?  Would he round the Cape Horn into the Southern Atlantic? Would he remain in the Pacific? Was he already off the coast of Brazil as one (false) report suggested? The Admiralty covered all options, but it seemed probable that he would remain off the coast of Chile, so the Falkland Islands would be essential as a coaling base. The battleship HMS Canopus was therefore directed to moor at Port Stanley and guard the islands.

On 23 November, sound intelligence was received by the Admiralty that von Spee remained off the Chilean coast.  On 24 November, Admiral Sturdee and Admiral Stoddart were to join forces and move to the Falklands.

Meanwhile, Admiral von Spee had rounded Cape Horn on 02 December with two armoured cruisers (SMS Gneisenau and Scharnhorst) and three light cruisers (SMS Nurnberg, Dresden and Leipzig).  On 06 December he made a decision to take the Falkland Islands, expecting to meet a small British squadron at worst. Unknown to him, Admiral Sturdee’s squadron, consisting of two battleships (Invincible and Inflexible), three armoured cruisers (Carnarvon, Kent and Cornwall) and two light cruisers (Glasgow and Bristol) arrived at the Falklands on the forenoon of 07 December. Sturdee’s intention was to coal immediately and sail in search of von Spee on 08 December.

At 7.50am on 08 December, while the British ships were still coaling, Admiral von Spee’s squadron was sighted by lookouts from HMS Canopus.  At 8.30am all coaling was ordered to cease and “Action” was sounded. At this moment, SMS Gneisenau and Nurnberg were approaching Port Stanley at a range of eight miles, while the remainder of von Spee’s squadron were at twenty miles.  By 9.15am, the two lead German ships were making ready to fire on the wireless station above Port Stanley. Only HMS Carnarvon was ready for action at this point, but Canopus had the first say in the action by firing on the Gneisenau at a range of 11,000 yards.

At 9.40am the Gneisenau had view of the harbour. It must have been a severe shock to see the dense smoke created by an unexpectedly large number of British warships, and worse still, to see the tripod masts of battleships! By 9.45am the Gneisenau and Nurnberg had turned and fled.  By 10.00am the British ships were under way and the chase had begun.

By 11.07am the enemy were in sight and it was clear the British ships had the advantage of speed. At 11.30am Admiral Sturdee aboard Invincible ordered that the next meal be taken aboard all ships while they closed in.

At 12.51pm the first shot of the chase was fired by Inflexible at the lagging Leipzig.  At 1.20pm, Admiral von Spee made a courageous and honourable move to save the Leipzig and his other light cruisers.  He turned his two armoured cruisers around to engage the British and ordered the light cruisers to make their escape.  Admiral Sturdee immediately ordered his light cruisers to break away and give chase.

Fate of German Armoured Cruisers

As soon as von Spee ordered the turn, Inflexible opened up on Gneisenau and Inflexible attacked the Scharnhorst.  The enemy had not replenished their ammunition since Coronel.  Von Spee sought to close the range down to make fire more effective, and held off returning fire until he was close enough. Sturdee realised this and continued to fire at long range.  By 3.10pm the action was at its hottest with Gneisenau listing and Scharnhorst burning.  By 4.00pm the Scharnhorst’s guns fell silent as she listed to starboard.  By 4.17pm she had sunk with the loss of all hands.

The attention of two British battleships now turned on the cruiser Gneisenau.  Despite being pounded, she continued to fight bravely.  By 5.10pm Admiral Stoddart in the Carnarvon had caught up and joined in.  By 5.30pm she was burning furiously and listing heavily, but still firing defiantly.  She sank at around 5.45pm with around 200 of her 850 men being picked up by 7.30pm.

Fate of the German Light Cruisers

Unknown to the British, the German Light Cruisers were not in good condition at the point war broke out.  After four months cruising with no maintenance periods, they were even worse with doubts raised over the condition of the boilers.  Glasgow being the fastest soon caught the Leipzig and opened fire at 2.53pm.  The Liepzig turned and launched a broadside at Glasgow.  This slowed the Leipzig’s progress and allowed Kent to close up.

Shortly after 3.30pm the German ships scattered on different courses.  Cornwall and Glasgow pursued Leipzig while Kent chased Nurnberg.  Dresden was able to escape due to her superior speed.

By 4.15pm Cornwall and Glasgow had closed in and engaged Leipzig.  Ten minutes later, it was clear that Leipzig was doomed as she was being hit time after time and her speed was falling.  But the Leipzig continued to fight for nearly two hours until the Cornwall closed range and began to fire lyddite, a high explosive.  A surviving German officer described it as ‘terrific’ and ‘fearful’ as the vessel became an inferno filled with dark smoke lit by the flashes of the bursting shells.  By 7.00pm Leipzig’s guns fell silent, but she managed to launch three torpedoes from her starboard tubes.  The crew opened the sea cocks to sink the Leipzig and gathered amidships in hope of rescue before she went down.  Sadly this was not seen by the British due to the smoke and flames and at 7.50pm, Captain Luce decided to finish Leipzig off at close range.  During this, the crew of the Leipzig managed to burn two green lights.  Luce ordered cease fire and put rescue boats into the water at 8.45pm.  Leipzig, a mass of flames and smoke, turned on her beam ends and sank at 9.23pm.  Only eighteen men were saved alive.

The Kent was not known as a good steamer, but by burning almost everything made of wood she had performed a miracle and had got almost within range of the Nurnberg by 5.00pm.  The Nurnberg immediately fired her stern guns which went over the Kent, while the Kent’s guns struggled to get close.  Things quickly improved as two of the Nurnberg’s boilers had burst slowing her down.  The Kent gained ground and soon her guns were within effective range with fire being exchanged from 5.45pm.  By 6.00pm the range was very close and the Nurnberg was taking severe punishment, so she turned away.  Kent continued to shell at longer range and ten minutes later Nurnberg was on fire with several guns out of action.  By 6.25pm Nurnberg had almost stopped in the water.  She had a heavy list, was down by the stern, she was ablaze and all her guns were out of action.  Just before 7.00pm, Nurnberg hauled down her colours in surrender and sank just before 7.30pm.  Kent sent boats to the rescue and continued to search until 9.00pm, but only seven men were saved.

What of SMS Dresden?  She had escaped, but Admiral Stoddart’s order to locate and sink her remained.  Worn out and with no coal, she was trapped by HMS Glasgow in a Chilean port were her crew scuttled her on 14 March 1915.

By Mark McCrea, History Hub Ulster Member

Reference: Naval Operations – History of the Great War Volume 1 – by Sir Julian S Corbett

Ulster’s Cold Water Warrior – Captain Francis Crozier

By John Hagan

Sonar images, captured in early September 2014, by a team of Canadian marine surveyors, have helped shed light on a longstanding mystery involving Banbridge explorer, Captain Francis Crozier.  Thanks to this new technology, the final resting place of one of the two ships (Erebus or Terror), on Crozier’s ill-fated North West Passage exploration of 1845, has been found. John Hagan describes the background to the Royal Navy’s greatest ever polar exploration disaster and Crozier’s role in it.

Far from this spot

In some unknown but not unhonoured resting place lie all that was mortal of

Francis Rawdon Moira Crozier Captn R.N.

So reads the commemorative marble plaque in Holy Trinity Parish Church, Banbridge (Co Down). In the square outside, his monument stands proudly opposite the house in which he was born. Snapping around his feet are the polar bears reputed to have taken his life. His was a remarkable existence, full of adventure, exploration, bravery and – disappointment. While Irishmen have always been in the vanguard of Polar exploration – Shackleton, Crean, McClure, McClintock and Kellett – Crozier’s feats are arguably the most remarkable, involving five expeditions to the Arctic and two voyages to the Antarctic. He was truly an extraordinary cold water warrior.

crozier_plaque

Plaque on Crozier’s former house in Banbridge

Born in 1796, Francis, the fifth son of Banbridge Attorney, George Crozier, joined the Royal Navy in 1810, when he was just fourteen. During the next thirty years he served the Senior Service on frigates, ships-of-the line, cutters and gun brigs, in the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Oceans, while working his way from cabin boy to captain.

It was in 1819 that he had his first taste of Polar exploration, volunteering to join an expedition led by the legendary Commander W E Parry in search of the North-west Passage. It was the beginning of a passion which would eventually see him spend some ten winters clenched in the mandibles of Polar ice.

Smitten by the discovery bug, three more Arctic voyages with Parry followed in 1821, 1823 and 1828, the latter a failed attempt to traverse the ice to the North Pole. Crozier was not part of the overland foray, but remained on board HMS Hecla to make astronomical and magnetic observations. He returned to Banbridge on half-pay before teaming up with his former messmate James Clark Ross in 1835, on a dangerous expedition to rescue missing whalers caught in the winter ice of Davis Strait in the Antarctic. But it was his second voyage south, from 1839 until 1843, which would so profoundly impact on his future.

Again under the leadership of Ross, Crozier left England in 1839 in HMS Terror for the purposes of magnetic research and geographical discovery in Antarctica and the Southern Ocean. Headquarters for the expedition was Hobart Town, capital of Van Diemen’s Land (now Tasmania). While the colony comprised of about 6,000 ‘free settlers’, it was also ‘home’ to some 15,000 convicts, including thousands of Irish, sentenced to transportation for often trifling misdemeanours.

It was in Hobart that Crozier made the acquaintance of the Colony’s Governor, and his future North West Passage commander, Sir John Franklin. Also a resident in Government House was Franklin’s niece, Sophy Cracroft, described as “a young lady of beauty and fortune”. Although many years her senior, Crozier fell deeply in love with Sophy and proposed to her in 1841. But Sophy, being something of a snob, regarded Crozier as “a horrid radical and an indifferent speller”, not to mention being ‘poor Irish’, so his advances were quickly rebuffed. When they met again in London in 1844, on the eve of what was to be his last voyage, Crozier made a second offer of marriage and was again refused.

During the early part of the nineteenth century, Sir John Barrow, England’s Secretary of the Admiralty, had dispatched eight Royal Navy expeditions in an effort to discover the North West Passage and a lucrative trade route to the Orient. Under pressure from other European seafaring nations and commercial interests in England, a further attempt was launched in 1845.

This was to be the largest, best-equipped Polar expedition ever mounted. The two ships chosen, HMS Erebus, and Crozier’s former Southern Ocean vessel HMS Terror, were the most technologically advanced vessels on the planet. Their bows and bottoms were specially reinforced, internal heating and insulation systems were installed, and each was fitted with sophisticated retractable screw propellers powered by locomotive steam engines. The vessels were also equipped with their own desalinators, and lavishly provisioned thanks to a recent innovation – canned food.  Staffed by 129 hand picked sailors, this was the Apollo mission of its day.  Yet, it vanished without trace – the worst disaster in the history of polar exploration.

Leadership of the mission was offered to Crozier’s erstwhile host in Van Diemen’s Land, Sir John Franklin. While Franklin was a Polar explorer of some renown, he was almost sixty years old, had not been to sea for thirteen years, and had not set foot in the Arctic in seventeen years. There is little doubt that, given his relative youth, knowledge and experience, Crozier should have been offered the position, but, was passed over for the English knight, and instead made captain of the Terror and Franklin’s second-in-command.

Few in the Royal Navy were Crozier’s equal on the quarterdeck, and his seamanship was recognised by peers and crew alike. He was a superb navigator, and also knew what it was to suffer the depravations of a polar winter – encased in ice amidst howling gales, enduring months of darkness in temperatures 50 degrees below zero.

Background was apparently the sole impediment to expedition leadership. Crozier may have been ‘an officer’, but he was certainly, in the eyes of his peers, not considered ‘a gentleman’. Not ‘the sort of chap’ a brother Royal Navy officer would ask to the club, despite being a Fellow of both the Astronomical Society and the Royal Society. He was considered as rough as the country he came from, ‘dreadful Irish’, crudely educated, plain spoken, with none of the required social graces of the day. Considerations of nationality and status seemed to conspire against him.

Watched by an enthusiastic cheering crowd of some 10,000, Erebus, Terror, and their elite crews were farewelled, with due pomp and ceremony at Greenhithe (London) on 19 May 1845. Aboard Terror, facing the prospect of another three years polar hardship, his heart apparently broken by both Sophy’s and the Admiralty’s rebuttals, Crozier was morose and pessimistic. “All goes smoothly”, he wrote to Ross, “but dear James I am sadly alone, not a soul in either ship that I can go and talk to — I am generally very busy but it is a very hermitlike life”. Unlike the Lords of the Admiralty, Crozier apparently had little confidence in Franklin, who, he considered as being, “Very decided in his own views but has not good judgement”. As he sailed away, he reportedly told a fellow officer that he did not expect to see his home in Ireland ever again.

Six weeks after departure, the ships reached Disco Bay in Greenland, where they offloaded supplies. On 12 July, they struck west across Baffin Bay, and on 26 July 1845 were observed by two Arctic whalers – before vanishing completely.

By the end of 1847, amid mounting concern for their safety, a number of private and official Royal Navy search expeditions were dispatched to the Arctic – without success.  In 1854, Dr John Rae of the Hudson’s Bay Company met Eskimo traders and learned that four years previously they had encountered a  party of “kabloonans” (white men), led by a tall, middle-aged officer (possibly Crozier), dragging a boat southward. Four months after this initial contact, they informed Rae that they had discovered the remains of the party near the western end of King William Island. According to the Eskimo all had apparently “perished from want of food”. To confirm their story the Eskimos sold Rae a number of articles picked up at the site, including a silver tablespoon bearing the initials ‘F.R.M.C.’ (Crozier).

Following many fruitless naval searches for the two ships, the Admiralty was finally convinced that all had perished and notified Lady Jane Franklin that she was now entitled to a widow’s pension. However, in the hope that her husband and members of his crew might still be alive, Lady Jane, financed a private expedition under the command of Dundalk’s Captain F L McClintock.  On 25 May 1859, on King William Island, McClintock’s expedition found his first piece of evidence – a skeleton lying face down in the snow. It was a steward from HMS Terror. On 2 June, McClintock arrived at Point Victory, where he discovered a huge heap of clothing and equipment, and more importantly, read a message, signed by Crozier, which was scrawled around an official piece of naval record paper.

“April 25th, 1848. H.M. Ships ‘Erebus’ and ‘Terror’ were deserted on 22nd April, 5 leagues N.N.W. of this, having been beset since 12th September 1846. The officers and crews, consisting of 105 souls, under the command of F.R.M. Crozier, landed here, in lat. 690 37’42”N., long. 98041’W. —- Sir John Franklin died on 11 June 1847; and the total loss by deaths in this expedition has been, to this date, 9 officers and 15 men. And start on to-morrow, 26th for Back’s Fish River.”

Since then, despite the voracious appetite of the polar ice, other relics have been uncovered, shedding further light on the fate of Crozier and his crews, but not fully unraveling of the greatest Arctic mystery of the age – what had happened to the ships and their crews?

In the two years following the Greenhithe departure, Erebus and Terror were entombed for nineteen months by monstrous ice packs pouring off the Pole like avalanches. Fahrenheit temperatures of 50 – 60 below zero cracked bolts and fastenings like gun shots, while blizzards lasting for weeks, buried the ships beneath 20-foot snowdrifts.

Despite all the expedition’s advanced technology, life in this frozen prison was brutal. Each seaman had a space 14 inches wide for his hammock; quarters were damp, and the bedding, often shared with rats, continually froze in the numbing cold. By the end of the second winter, rations and heating were in short supply and the incessant grinding of ice against the hull, accompanied by the shrieking Polar wind in the top decking and masts, added to the torment. Isolation, loneliness, privation and fear were unremitting.

IM000193.JPG

Crozier statue in Banbridge

On 11 June 1847, Sir John Franklin died from undetermined causes and Crozier assumed leadership of the beleaguered expedition. It was his first, and last, command in the Royal Navy. With stores dangerously low and no thaw imminent, Crozier decided to abandon the ice-locked ships and strike out for the Hudson’s Bay Company outpost on Great Slave Lake. Leaving Terror, his ‘home’ for so many years must have been a great wrench to Crozier, and not a decision taken lightly. If he could guide the crew to the Back’s River, some 250 miles to the south, it may be ice free, and afford them the opportunity to row the remaining 700 miles to Fort Resolution on Great Slave Lake. It was a desperate plan and evidence suggests that Crozier made careful and deliberate preparations.

Clothing was carefully adapted, screws were inserted in shoes to provide traction on the ice, and goggles were fashioned to prevent snow blindness. Remaining food supplies were removed from boxes and placed in sacks to reduce weight, and only minimal weapons were carried.

To navigate Back’s River, Crozier needed boats, plus enough equipment and food for the remaining 105 officers and crew, all of which would need to be lugged across the intervening inhospitable ice desert. This presented a daunting task for fit, strong men, never mind sailors who had been on half rations for the previous nine months and were generally in poor health. The twin spectres of frostbite and starvation loomed large.

Numbed with cold, dehydrated, and tortured by hunger, the survivors moved slowly, man-hauling their sleds and boats up jagged ice pressure ridges, while at other times sinking in soft wet snow up to their hips. Clothing, saturated by sweat while they hauled, clamped them like a frozen straightjacket when they rested.  Physical punishment and torment were unrelenting as they advanced a pitiful three to four miles per day. While flesh on faces froze, turning the skin a scaly grey, it was frostbitten feet which caused most despair and panic. When these limbs became infected they swelled grotesquely, turned black, and emitted a foul smell. A man who couldn’t walk, couldn’t haul, and so became a liability and a burden to others.

In order to save the living, Crozier was forced to make a nauseating decision – to cannibalize the dead.  Remains found along the route of this ‘death march’ attest to intentional dismemberment of corpses. Perhaps, in time, the debilitated and wretched survivors became accustomed to the taste of human flesh and bone marrow, and, in the ultimate act of desperation, may have been forced to kill some of their number for sustenance and survival. Substantial remnants of the expedition were eventually discovered near Montreal Island, some 60 miles short of the mouth of the Back’s River. Beyond this location no more remains, including the fate of the two ships, have (until recently) ever been found. The fact that the wretched men had been able to struggle so far was in itself a miracle and perhaps attests to Crozier’s inspired leadership. While all may have foundered, courage and camaraderie seemingly remained resolute in face of the most horrific Arctic conditions and deprivations.

Although it is possible that Crozier was devoured by polar bears, it has been suggested he may have survived to spend his remaining days amongst the nomadic Chippewyan Inuit of northern Canada. Certainly his previous forays into the Polar regions endowed him with the necessary knowledge and endurance skills to cope in the environment. Like these esquimaux herders, Crozier had been a polar wanderer for most of his life. Perhaps with them, he finally found contentment and acceptance for what he was, rather than discrimination based on his birth and social background.

In keeping with his renown as an explorer, the name Crozier is attributed to eight of the world’s landmarks including three Cape Croziers, a Crozier Channel, and a Crozier River. However, perhaps the most significant memorial to Francis Rawdon Moira Crozier lies about 240,000 miles away on the surface of the moon.

In naming ‘Crozier Crater’ in the lunar sea of Mare Fecunditais, the humble sea captain from Banbridge, is now rightfully recognised amongst the company of great polar explorers, including Amundsen, Shackleton, Scott, and Nansen who are also commemorated on the lunar landscape.