Ulster links to HMS Pathfinder: The first ship sunk using a powered torpedo from a submarine

HMS Pathfinder

HMS Pathfinder

The first ship ever to be sunk by a locomotive torpedo fired by a submarine was HMS Pathfinder, a Pathfinder-class scout cruiser, on 5th September 1914.  She was sunk off St Abbs Head in the Scottish Borders while on patrol, by U-21 commanded by Kapitänleutnant Otto Hersing, taking with her 6 men from Ulster.  Despite the event having been easily visible from shore the authorities attempted to cover up the sinking and HMS Pathfinder was reported to have been mined.

Captain Francis Martin Leake, Royal Navy HMS Pathfinder

Captain Francis Martin Leake

The majority of crew below decks had neither the time nor opportunity to escape and went down with the ship.  There was some confusion at the time over the exact number of crew on board, but research indicates that there were 261 deaths and only 18 survivors. 

One of these survivors of HMS Pathfinder was Captain Francis Martin Leake who had started his career as a young Lieutenant on HMS Caroline.  Captain Leake stayed with his ship as she went down by the nose but was lucky to be picked up and saved.  

He writes in a letter to his mother; “The torpedo got us in our forward magazine and evidently sent this up, thereby killing everyone forward”.  He says of Pathfinder; “She then fell over and disappeared leaving a mass of wreckage all around, but I regret very few men amongst it, for at the time they were all asleep on the mess decks and the full explosion must have caught them, for no survivors came from forward.”

Another survivor was County Down man, Staff Surgeon Thomas Aubrey Smyth who gave an account of his experiences in a letter to his mother who lived at Bedeque House, Dromore.

Staff Surgeon Thomas Aubrey Smyth, Royal Navy HMS Pathfinder

Staff Surgeon Thomas Aubrey Smyth

“The explosion blew a great hole in the side of the ship.  I was at the time in the wardroom, but ran up on deck immediately, and it was then evident by the way the bow was down in the water that she would sink rapidly.  I should say the whole thing occurred in about ten minutes which time was spent in throwing overboard the few articles which would float (the reason there was not more of these was that in preparation for war all unnecessary woodwork is got rid of to prevent fire).  I was then thrown forward by the slope of the deck and got jammed beneath a gun (which I expect is the cause of my bruising) and while in this position was carried down some way by the sinking ship, but fortunately after a time I became released and after what seemed like interminable ages I came to the surface, and after swimming a short time I was able to get an oar and some other floating material with the help of which I was just able to keep on the surface. After holding on for a long time – I believe it was an hour and a half – I must have become unconscious for I have no recollection of being picked out of the water. You see we were alone when it happened, so it took a long time for the reserve torpedo boats to come out and it was too quick to get any of our own boats out, besides most of the few we had were splintered into pieces.” 

There were at least 6 Ulster casualties on board HMS Pathfinder:

These Ulster men were:

Ordinary Seaman HERBERT DALEY born in Lurgan, died aged 20

Stoker (1st class) CHARLES JOHN GORMAN born in Belfast, died aged 24

Leading Stoker JAMES HERBERT HILLIS born in Banbridge, died aged 26

Stoker (1st class) WILLIAM SWANN born Glasgow, lived in Belfast, died aged 23

Stoker (1st class) ANDREW WEST born Belfast, died aged 23

Stoker (1st class) GEORGE SINCLAIR BELL born Belfast, died aged 28    

None of these men’s bodies were recovered for burial and as such they still remain were they died.  All six men are remembered at Chatham Naval Memorial.  The wreck site of HMS Pathfinder is designated under the Protection of Military Remains Act 1986.  The anniversary on 5th September will be marked by the British Sub-Aqua Club who will lay a wreath for the centenary of her sinking.

On the Centenary of HMS Pathfinder’s sinking on 5th September, HMS Bangor will arrive in Bangor, County Down. She will be open to the general public on the afternoons of Sat 6th and Sun 7th. HMS Bangor is a 600 tonne Sandown Class Minehunter, commissioned by the Royal Navy and launched by Lady Lisa Spencer in 1999 at Southampton Docks. She is named after Bangor and is the second Royal Navy vessel to bear the name. She is 52.5m in length and has a max speed of 13 knots.

Research by Karen O’Rawe Chair of History Hub Ulster.

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