Category: Military

OTD: The Sinking of the Birkenhead

On this day in 1852, the troopship HMS Birkenhead was wrecked while transporting troops to Algoa Bay at Danger Point near Gansbaai, 140 kilometres from Cape Town.  There were not enough serviceable lifeboats for all the passengers, and the soldiers famously stood firm on board, thereby allowing the women and children to board the boats safely and escape the sinking.

It is not known how many were on board although the accepted number seems to be 638, and the survivors comprised 113 soldiers of all ranks, 6 Royal Marines, 54 seamen (all ranks), 7 women, 13 children and at least one male civilian, A number of cavalry horses were also carried and these were freed and driven into the sea and eight made it safely to land, while the ninth had its leg broken while being pushed into the sea.

The Birkenhead would have faded into obscurity had it not been for the courage and discipline of the soldiers on board who were ordered  to “Stand Fast !! Women and Children First”. That order became unofficially entrenched in maritime history and would also feature when the ill fated Titanic sank on 15 April 1912.

Just before she sank, Captain Robert Salmond RN, called out that “all those who can swim jump overboard, and make for the boats”.

Wreck of the Birkenhead By Thomas M Hemy

Lieutenant-Colonel Seton, of the 74th Foot recognised that rushing the lifeboats would risk swamping them and endangering the women and children, ordered his men to stand fast, and only three men made the attempt. The cavalry horses were freed and driven into the sea in the hope that they might be able to swim ashore. 

A survivor later recounted: “Almost everybody kept silent, indeed nothing was heard, but the kicking of the horses and the orders of Salmond, all given in a clear firm voice. 

The soldiers did not move, even as the ship broke up barely 20 minutes after striking the rock. Some of the soldiers managed to swim the 2 miles (3.2 km) to shore over the next 12 hours, often hanging on to pieces of the wreck to stay afloat, but most drowned, died of exposure, or were killed by sharks.

I remained on the wreck until she went down; the suction took me down some way, and a man got hold of my leg, but I managed to kick him off and came up and struck out for some pieces of wood that were on the water and started for land, about two miles off. I was in the water about five hours, as the shore was so rocky and the surf ran so high that a great many were lost trying to land. Nearly all those that took to the water without their clothes on were taken by sharks; hundreds of them were all round us, and I saw men taken by them close to me, but as I was dressed (having on a flannel shirt and trousers) they preferred the others. I was not in the least hurt, and am happy to say, kept my head clear; most of the officers lost their lives from losing their presence of mind and trying to take money with them, and from not throwing off their coats.

– Letter from Lieutenant J.F. Girardot, 43rd Light Infantry, to his father, 1 March 1852.

When I visited Liverpool in 2018 I was surprised to find a memorial to the ship on the Wirral side of the River Mersey. The memorial, by Jemma Twigg, 18, of Birkenhead Sixth Form College, was the winning design from a competition among local art colleges, It was unveiled on 5 March 2014 on the Woodside Promenade, Birkenhead, by the Mayor of Wirral Cllr Dave Mitchell and the Lord-Lieutenant of Merseyside, Dame Lorna Muirhead.

Pebbles from Gansbaai beach where the survivors swam ashore surround the memorial which consists of three steel panels and a plaque. A transcription of the plaque is available here.

The ship and the men who lost their lives are immortalised in Rudyard Kipling’s 1893 tribute to the Royal Marines, “Soldier an’ Sailor Too”:

To take your chance in the thick of a rush, with firing all about,
Is nothing so bad when you’ve cover to ‘and, an’ leave an’ likin’ to shout;
But to stand an’ be still to the Birken’ead drill is a damn tough bullet to chew,
An’ they done it, the Jollies — ‘Er Majesty’s Jollies — soldier an’ sailor too!
Their work was done when it ‘adn’t begun; they was younger nor me an’ you;
Their choice it was plain between drownin’ in ‘eaps an’ bein’ mopped by the screw,
So they stood an’ was still to the Birken’ead drill, soldier an’ sailor too.

DRW © 2020. Created 26/02/2020. Most of the information in this blog originates from the relevant wikipedia page.

Image of the print “Wreck of the Birkenhead” by  Thomas M Hemy – http://ca.geocities.com/thomashemy@rogers.com/thomashemydata19.html 2008-01-22, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3436812

 Kipling, Rudyard (2005). Collected Verse of Rudyard Kipling. Kessinger. pp. 305–6. ISBN 978-1-4179-0750-2.

Updated: 22/03/2020 — 10:39

Three Ships Month

February has become what is known as “3 ships month”, and unfortunately the 3 ships that I remember are all disasters that are part of maritime history in South Africa. This year I am going to commemorate them in one post as opposed to 3. 

11 February 1941: HMSAS Southern Floe.

The ship was a  Southern Class whaler, one of four ships taken over by the Navy from Southern Whaling & Sealing Co. Ltd., Durban. The four ships were renamed  HMSAS Southern Maid, HMSAS Southern Sea, HMSAS Southern Isles and HMSAS Southern Floe. 

In January 1941, Southern Floe and her sister ship Southern Sea arrived at Tobruk to take over patrol duties along the mine free swept channels and to escort any ships through them. 

HMSAS Southern Maid. (SA Museum of Military History)

On 11 February 1941, HMSAS Southern Sea arrived at the rendezvous two miles east of Tobruk,  but there was no sign of Southern Floe and a passing destroyer notified the vessel that they had picked up a stoker from the vessel, clinging to some wreckage. The stoker, CJ Jones RNVR, was the sole survivor of the ship, and he explained that there had been a heavy explosion on board and he had barely escaped with his life. There had been other survivors but they had not been picked up and Stoker Jones had spent 14 hours in the water. Although never confirmed it is assumed that the vessel had struck a mine.

18 February 1982. SAS President Kruger.

One of three sister ships (President Steyn, Pretorius and Kruger),  the “PK” was a Type 12 Frigate, built in the United Kingdom and was launched on 20 October 1960 from the Yarrow Shipbuilders, Scotstoun. She was the flagship of the South African Navy, and at the time of her sinking she was also holder of the “Cock of the Fleet”.

On 18 February 1982, the vessel was conducting anti-submarine exercises with her sister ship the SAS President Pretorius, the submarine SAS Emily Hobhouse and the replenishment ship SAS Tafelberg. She was under the command of  Captain de Lange and at the time were using the opportunity to carry out anti-submarine exercises, with each ship given a patrol sector ahead of the Tafelberg. The President Kruger was stationed on the Tafelberg’s port side between 10 and 330 degrees, while the the President Pretorius had a reciprocal box on the starboard side.

At approximately 4 am, the whole formation had to change direction by 154 degrees which would result in an almost complete reversal in direction. To maintain station the frigates would change direction first to maintain their positions ahead of the Tafelberg on the new heading. President Kruger had two possible options: turn 200 degrees to port, or 154 degrees to starboard. The starboard turn was a much smaller one but was much more dangerous as it involved turning towards the Pretorius and Tafelberg.  The officer of the watch elected to make the starboard turn, initiating 10 a degree turn. that had a larger radius and would take longer to execute than a 15 degree turn, Critically while executing the turn, the operations room lost radar contact with the Tafelberg in the radar clutter. An argument ensued between the officer of the watch and the principal warfare officer over the degree of wheel to apply, it was however too late and the bows of the much bigger Tafelberg impacted the President Kruger on her port side.

The President Kruger sank 78 nautical miles (144 km) south west of Cape Point, with the loss of  16 lives. Because the impact was in the senior ratings mess most of the casualties were Petty Officers which impacted on the Navy due to the loss of so many senior ratings. A naval board of inquiry was appointed shortly afterwards that determined the cause of the collision was of a lack of seamanship by the captain and watch officers of the ship.  The Captain was administratively retired early and the Navy arranged a job with Armscor for him, while the PWO was sidelined to only shore appointments and had his promotion stopped.

21 February 1916. HMT Mendi.

The 4230 GRT Mendi (Official number 120875), was owned by the British & African Steam Navigation  Company Limited. which was part of Elder, Dempster and Company. She was 370 ft long with a beam of 46 ft and was built by Alexander Stephen & Sons, Glasgow. She was fitted with triple expansion steam engines that gave her a maximum speed of 13 knots.

The ship was carrying 15 officers, 17 NCO’s and 802 members of the South African Native Labour Corps as well as 1500 tons of cargo and set sail under convoy for Plymouth. The SANLC men were quartered in the number 1, 2 and 4 holds. After calling at Plymouth she set sail for Le Havre on the 20th of February at full speed, escorted by the destroyer HMS Brisk. The weather was overcast, threatening mist with light winds and a smooth sea. However, after midnight the weather became thicker and speed was reduced until the ship was sailing at slow speed. The whistle was sounded  and a number of other ships whistles were heard. At 4.45 the escort signalled the Mendi and suggested that the slow speed made it difficult to keep station. The Mendi maintained her slow speed.

In the early hours of the morning of the 21st of February  The SS Darro,  inbound for the UK, ran into the hapless Mendi, striking her at right angles, damaging the bulkhead between number 1 and 2 holds where the troops were quartered. The Darro then backed out of the hole, presumably because her engines were now responding the the full astern command given shortly before the collision. She disappeared into the fog, leaving the Mendi to founder. On board the stricken Mendi orders were given to lower the boats to the rail and the 4 whistle blast signal for boat stations was given. The boats were then ordered to be lowered to the water and to lie alongside.    

Of the 802 SANLC troops on board some 607 men of the South African contingent perished, as did 30 members of her crew. The Darro lay off not too far from where the disaster was unfolding, on board her the lifeboats were lowered to the rail and all hands were on deck. In spite of these preparations and the sound of voices in the water no attempt was made to investigate what had happened or to rescue survivors although 2 boats did reach the ship and survivors were embarked. She remained in the area until until just before 9 am. and then set sail for a Channel port (possibly Southampton or Portsmouth) where 107 survivors of which 64 were from the SANLC were landed.  

The disaster shook the nation, but was gradually forgotten as the years passed. The Nationalist government conveniently erased it from history but it has become more prominent once again as veterans groups get together to remember those volunteers from the SANLC who died in a war that they knew nothing about. 

DRW © 2020. Created 08/02/2020. Image of the President Kruger is by ECSequeira – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=28102570  Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/SAS_President_Kruger. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. Image has been cropped and resized. 

Updated: 18/02/2020 — 11:02

OTD: The Bombing of Reading

On 10 February 1943, Reading was bombed by the Luftwaffe in an incident involving a single aircraft. Four 500kg bombs were dropped killing 41 people and injuring 150.  I visited the town twice to do gravehunting although I did not fully explore it, concentrating more on the old cemetery. Up till today I had not really known the details behind the bombing and the plaque that was affixed to the side of a building next to St Laurence Church. 

Only 37 of those killed were ever identified and the youngest casualty was a boy of 10 years old. Amongst the survivors was Michael Bond, the author of the Paddington Bear books. 

St Laurence Church

The bombs fell in a line from the north bank of the River Kennet to just outside Reading Town Hall, with the first landed on Simmonds Brewery, the second bomb penetrated the offices of the Reading Labour Party in Minster Street and exploding in Welsteeds Department store across the road. The third bomb landed on a Victorian arcade linking Broad Street and Friar Street and exploded outside the People’s Pantry in Friar Street and the fourth landed on top of the People’s Pantry and detonated outside the town hall, bringing down the front of Blandy and Blandy Solicitors and damaging St Laurence Church.

The Town Hall

The plaque in the image above is affixed to the wall of the building where Blandy and Blandy Solicitors are, and that is next to St Laurence Church.  I am sure that some of the victims of that incident are buried in the old Cemetery in the town. 

The Cenotaph in Reading is behind the churchyard of St Laurence at the entrance to Forbury Park

DRW © 2020. Created 10/02/2020. Most of the text and information comes from an article published on the getreading pages of 10/02/2020

Updated: 15/02/2020 — 08:57
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