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Wednesday, July 18, 2012

The loss of the HMS Hampshire: Act of war or murder?


The loss of the HMS Hampshire: Act of war or murder? 

By Sean Chase, Daily Observer







The sailors aboard the HMS Hampshire were climbing into their hammocks when the vibrations of an explosion suddenly knocked them off their feet.
In the mess hall, off-duty personnel were sitting down to supper when they heard this dreadful grating sound echoing through the bowels of the ship. The blast, under the port side just forward of the bridge, tore an enormous hole below the keel -a mortal injury for any vessel. The lights flickered off, plunging the mess hall into darkness. Petty Officer Wilfred Wesson felt a gust of air rushing along the deck, blowing men's caps off. Groping for the switch, he felt the floor list steadily towards the bow.
Captain Herbert Savill was on the bridge when he felt the violent shudder ripple through his ship as the clock struck 7:40 p.m. The damage was cataclysmic. The helm was disabled while the power failed, knocking out the lights and the wireless. The Hampshire was barely three hours into her voyage to Archangel, Russia. Her assignment: to escort Lord Kitchener, the Secretary of War, on a secret diplomatic mission to engage Czar Nicholas. That mission was now over. The 655 souls aboard the warship must now fight for their lives.
The Hampshire was sailing up the Orkney coast between Marwick Head and the Brough of Birsay when the explosion occurred. A lookout stationed with the Orkney Royal Artillery garrison on the cliffs near Birsay saw the blast. Despite the heavy rain, the gunner could clearly see the Hampshire was in trouble. She was only one-and-a-half miles offshore. He ran down the path to inform the duty corporal, James Drever, who raced to the village's post office. There he crafted two urgent messages that were wired by postmistress Jessie Comloquoy. One was sent to the western patrol command in Stromwell, some 20 miles away, and the artillery commander at Kirkwall. Drever glanced at his watch. Five minutes had now passed since they heard the explosion.
By now, the Hampshire was going down by the bow with a sharp list to starboard. Savill had ordered "abandon ship!" The hatches opened as men clambered onto the deck to take their positions at the boat stations. Considering the situation, everyone remained cool and calm, including their illustrious passenger.
Wearing his khaki field marshal's uniform, Lord Kitchener exited the gun room flat followed by his entourage. The biting frigid winds of the gale did not seem to bother the Earl of Khartoum, who left his stateroom in such a hurry he forgot his great coat and forge cap. Captain Savill called out orders for the war minister to proceed to the quarter-deck where the captain's boat was being manually lowered. Wesson saw Lord Kitchener and was struck by how unaffected he was by the events around him.
"He looked as though he might have appeared at that moment, not for self-preservation, but regretfully to inspect the irreparable damage to a proud vessel," recounted Wesson later. "He looked tired and worn."
The old soldier then mounted the ladder. That was the last anyone saw of Lord Kitchener. With the power loss, five of the largest lifeboats could not be electrically launched from their derricks. Chief shipwright William Phillips and two others threw a carpenter's bench overboard, hoping to use it as a life raft. The mountainous waves immediately smashed it to pieces. Desperate sailors began jumping into the roaring sea, including many badly scalded by the steam escaping the engine room. Those bleeding screamed in agony when the salt water washed their wounds.
The propellers rose out of the water, motionless as the Hampshire dipped her bow deep into the sea. Wesson joined a crowd of 50 men who had cut away a raft and managed to float it off the sinking ship. As the hull began rolling over, they paddled with every ounce they had for the derelict raft. Those strong enough made it on board.
The Hampshire suddenly exe- cuted a somersault lurch for- ward, throwing men clinging to her boat deck and the stern into the raging water. On shore, Drever watched in horror as the Hampshire disappeared beneath the waves. Ms. Comloquoy then tapped out a second message: "vessel down."
Only three circular Carley rafts were launched. Each accommodated 45 people -not enough room for the hundreds now thrashing about in the ice cold water. Aboard Phillips' raft, men wearing life jackets were asked to leave the craft to make room for those without. Given the plunging temperatures, they would be going to their deaths. Some 18 volunteers stood up and jumped over- board, sacrificing themselves so their shipmates stood a chance to reach shore.
"All around us were floating bodies," recounted stoker Walter Farnden. "Other men were cling- ing to lifebelts and pieces of wreckage and calling for help. It was impossible to rescue them."
Standing on the cliffs, a help- less Drever and others watched the boats wallow in the seas. He saw the hundreds of heads bob- bing in the surf and quietly prayed help would arrive soon. But none would be coming for the doomed survivors of the Hampshire. At 8:10 p.m., G.L. Thomson, honourary secretary of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, rushed into navy headquarters at Stromness instructing duty personnel that his lifeboat was ready for launch. To his utter amazement, he was rebuked by a senior officer who told Thomson it was a naval matter and to stay out of it. Fur- thermore, if he launched his lifeboat, he would be charged with mutiny. No instructions went out to the life stations along the island's west coast.
By 9:45 p.m., more than two hours after the explosion, a tug and two trawlers pulled away from the docks at Stromness enroute to the scene. At 10 p.m., the destroyer escorts Unity and Victory were finally ordered to Birsay.
Since the Hampshire went down, men were dying by the minute. Water began filling the bottom of Wilfred Wesson's raft. Exposure was the killer for most. Their limbs became numb as they closed their eyes, embrac- ing eternity where they sat. Tom Jennings, a grizzled 45-year-old gunner, tried leading the boys in a few choruses of "Tipperary." Fighting off death to the last, Tom defiantly stood up, faced the howling wind and belted out "... farewell Leicester Square," before collapsing to the bottom of the raft.
By midnight, volunteers from Birsay set out along the sheep paths in search of survivors who may have reached shore. The vil- lagers were surprised to see Ter- ritorial soldiers already posted along the cliffs. At 1 a.m., a Carley raft struck the rocks of a creek north of Skaill Bay. Initially overloaded with 70 men, only six were still alive.
At the same time, Wesson's raft washed up on the jagged rocks of the craggy Orkney coast. There were only four left alive. The sailor began climbing the treacherous heights before him. His limbs numb from the cold, he clawed his way up. The exhausted sailor reached the top where his weary eyes spotted a light across the field. Reaching a house, he banged on the door until the owners found him hypothermic. Wrapping him in blankets and hot-water bottles, they put him to bed.
In those dark hours, ships began reaching the scene far too late. By dawn, the gale calmed. The dead strewed the shore, or were retrieved by the late res- cuers. Only 12 sailors managed to reach the shelter of Birsay res- idences. No officers survived. Nor did any member of the dele- gation. Lord Kitchener's body was never found. A week later, King George and Queen Mary led all mourners in a elaborate memorial service at St. Paul's Cathedral.
Since then, speculation has been rife with the belief there were some in the British estab- lishment, seeing the war minis- ter as an obstacle to victory, who conspired to assassinate Lord Kitchener. After the field mar- shal's demise, Lord Northcliffe remarked: "Now we can get on with winning the war."
Many point to the fact that Lloyd George was pulled from the mission, at the last minute, as proof. Kitchener had also con- fided to Lord Derby that he intended to seek a peace of con- ciliation when the war ended. Would this policy have been too much for those seeking utter German capitulation?
The Admiralty's inquiry
heard from survivors that they believed Hampshire struck a single mine.
Some also felt more than one explosion caused the ship to go down in just 10
minutes. Germany's master spy, Ernst Carl, once
claimed he smuggled two bombs aboard the Hampshire as she was docked.
In addi- tion, how did British intelligence fail to know that the route had been
mined for weeks? If they did, why was this infor- mation not passed
onto Admi- ral Jellicoe, who made the fateful decision to send the Hampshire on a west- ern course instead of their intended route through the east channel.
One matter that the Admiralty never fully explained was its slow response to the disaster. Many questions have been asked about why it took rescue ships two hours to leave port -a criti- cal time when hundreds could have been saved. It's estimated 200 sailors escaped the Hamp- shire alive before she went down. Another 130 made it onto the life rafts. Was it incompe- tence or did the navy deliber- ately delay sending aid?
Orkney residents contra- dicted the Admiralty's assertion that rescue vessels arrived at the scene at midnight. Many have testified that the army arrived at Birsay and posted guards along the coast to dis- suade volunteer rescue parties. One farmer said he was told by a soldier that all civilians were to remain in their houses and not to venture near the shore or they would be fired upon.
To this day, there is still a feel- ing on the islands that the gov- ernment covered up the whole affair. More horrifying is that if such a conspiracy existed, it meant 655 men were sent to their deaths to destroy one man.
Perhaps Kitchener's friend and biographer knew the truth. In 1920, Sir George Arthur cryp- tically wrote: "By an unhappy error of judgement an unswept channel was chosen for the pas- sage of the cruiser; and Kitch- ener -the secret of whose jour- ney had been betrayed -was to fall into the machinations of England's enemies, and to die swiftly at their hands."
Sean Chase is a Daily Observer multimedia journalis

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