H.M.S. President

Coming along the [Thames] Embankment from Westminster, we notice the change on the lamps, which now bear the City arms, and there is a medallion of Queen Victoria where the famous Square Mile begins. On the right we come to the training ship President, which rises and falls with the tide so that sometimes, walking down Temple Avenue, we see it rising up in front of us and at other times hardly see it at all.

HMS President 2

At times we may see an Admiral’s flag flying from this training ship, for every Admiral appointed to the Admiralty for any special work is officially appointed to H M S President, the nearest ship available.
‘London’, Arthur Mee. Hodder and Stoughton, 1937.

HMS President 1

You won’t see the President at all now, at any stage of the tide. This WWI submarine hunter, launched in 1918, was sold out of the Royal Navy in 1988 and after several years in private ownership was moved to Chatham dockyard two years ago. Since then a preservation society has been trying to save her from the breakers but, checking their website, it looks like their battle may have been lost and this historic ship will be reduced to scrap. Recent news is hard to find. The society’s last message on their Twitter account was posted in September.

Photos © Mike Warman, 1970.

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The Liner that sank a battleship

Cigarette card image of the White Star ship Arabic.“The twin-screw steamer “Arabic,” 16,786 tons, is engaged in the White Star Line service from Mediterranean ports to Boston and New York, and is the largest liner regularly plying in this trade. This ship is noted for her graceful lines. She is 590 feet in length, and has a breadth of 69 feet. The “Arabic” public rooms are features of architectural splendour and luxurious furnishings. She has a verandah cafe and a photographic darkroom, which latter is of special service to camera lovers cruising the Mediterranean.”

This caption from a cigarette card printed in the 1920s doesn’t mention that Arabic began life as the Nordd. Lloyd’s s.s. Berlin. Best not remind the White Star company passengers that their luxury ‘British’ liner once had a short, but very successful, career as a German minelayer in the First World War.

Arabic 37479v

ggbain 37479 http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ggbain.37479
Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA

Built in 1909, the Berlin worked the Genoa to New York service until the outbreak of war when she was fitted out as a minelayer for the German navy. On the night of October 23rd-24th, 1914, she laid a large field off the Ulster coast and headed home around the north of Scotland where she was damaged in a storm. The ship took refuge at Trondheim in neutral Norway and, unable to complete repairs and leave in the required 24 hours, was interned for the rest of the war.

Meanwhile, on the morning of 27th October, the almost new dreadnought battleship H.M.S. Audacious was preparing for gunnery practice off the Irish coast, along with 2nd Battle Squadron, Royal Navy, when she side-swiped one of Berlin’s mines.

Audacious

© Imperial War Museum (Q 75212)

The explosion blew a hole in her port side near the engine room and she began to take on water. The initial suspect was a torpedo from a U-boat so the squadron scattered until the real culprit was confirmed. Then a rescue flotilla, including the White Star liner Olympic, descended on the stricken ship despite the threat of more mines. For the rest of the day, while all but essential personel abandoned ship, there were attempts to tow Audacious to shore, but all lines snapped as the heavy battleship wallowed in the swell.

audacious sinking

© IWM (Q 75584)

Eventually, in the darkness with no one left on board, Audacious turned over and, 45 minutes later, an explosion in the magazine sent her to the bottom. You can read a more detailed account on this Royal Navy site and a short, vivid, eye-witness description by Lieutenant Thomas Galbraith is worth your time. He writes about the “horrible feeling” when the engines stopped – “one felt she was dying”. Which underlines an odd quirk of human nature.

Anyone who has ‘been to sea’ for more than a ferry trip will come to regard “their” ship as a living entity and they’ll experience an emotional response to it, sometimes bad but most times good if luck holds. Size doesn’t matter. It can be a fishing trawler or a bulk carrier. Aircraft, trains, and cars “crash” and are written off. Ships “die”, and it’s a difficult thing to watch.

But I digress.

After the war, Berlin was one of many German ships confiscated by the Western Allies to replace lost tonnage. Refitted and renamed Arabic, she took her first White Star sailing from Southampton in 1921 and was scrapped ten years later.

H.M.S. Audacious lies upside down on the seafloor at a depth of 200 feet and is considered an accessible wreck for experienced divers. She was the only British dreadnought sunk in World War One.
By a passenger liner.
Remotely.

H.M.S. Victory

Although the Victory was ordered for the Royal Navy in 1759 and is still in commission as a flagship, she is for ever remembered for just one battle on one day; Trafalgar, 21st October 1805, and her association with one man; Admiral Horatio Nelson.

Victory

Still afloat at Portsmouth in the early 1900s.

V_Nelson…. “in his new flagship, the Victory, [Nelson] had one of the stateliest three-deckers ever built, a vessel in every way worthy to receive him [in 1803]. She had been laid down when he was still in his cradle, had been launched at Chatham in 1765, and had worn the flags of Keppel, Kempenfelt, Howe, Hood, St Vincent and other, lesser, admirals. She had just undergone a large repair which was practically a rebuilding, and was capable of a surprising turn of speed. Had Nelson been offered his choice, he could not have proposed a finer or a lovelier ship.

Such a ship was “tall” indeed, for her main-mast, with its top-mast and top-gallant, rose 175 feet above her deck. She mounted 104 guns, and with all her size and capacity there was not a corner wasted, from the depths of her hold with its ordered stores and well-stowed ammunition to the skid-beams on the spar-deck where the boats were ready for hoisting out by tackle at the word of command.”
‘A Portrait of Lord Nelson’, Oliver Warner. The Reprint Society, 1958. [Edited]

V_KGVThe Victory remained in service after Nelson’s death and the French/Spanish defeat at Trafalgar until paid off in 1812, and was afterwards moored at Portsmouth as either a receiving ship or flagship into the early part of the 20th century. Then, in 1922……

….. “it was discovered that Nelson’s famous flagship, the Victory, was sinking at her moorings in Portsmouth Harbour, and that the timbers of the hull were in perilous condition. She was accordingly moved permanently into dry dock, and thorough measures taken to restore her. A careful study of naval records has enabled the Victory’s appearance at the time of the battle of Trafalgar, and the Admiral’s quarters, to be reproduced.

On July 26th, 1924, before holding the Naval Review at Spithead, the King and the Prince of Wales went over the famous old man-of-war, and inspected the work of reconstruction.”
‘The Reign of H.M. King George V’, 1935. W.D. & H.O. Wills.

H.M.S. Victory

The restored H.M.S. Victory in 1928, the year it was opened to the public.

Victory gun deck

The lower gun deck. The crew slept and ate here too.

“Impressive as the Victory still is, in her meticulously preserved condition at Portsmouth, she is now but a shell of the sea fortress which dominated the Mediterranean. Her immense spread of sail, which gave her speed, has gone forever; her eight hundred and fifty men, who gave her power, are no more than memories.”
Ibid: Warner.

This impressive “shell” has managed to draw visitors by the million since 1928 and, with the help of some expensive, high tech care and attention should continue to do so for many more years.

It could be argued that Trafalgar was as important to Britain in the 19th century as the Battle of Britain was in the 20th, and for the same reason; they both foiled an invasion by a foreign power. Trafalgar Day will be commemorated this Sunday.

I had intended to write more about the ship, the battle, and the Admiral but Mike at A Bit About Britain did it first – and better – with his post on 24th August. I recommend you read it. In fact, if you’re planning to visit Britain, or just want to explore the place without leaving your chair, this blog is essential reading. (And he didn’t pay me to write that).

The Navy gets its wings

During the late war [World War One], the Navy acquired its wings with the formation of the Royal Naval Air Service, which corresponded to the the Royal Flying Corps ashore. But these two separate forces were merged into the Royal Air Force, and for many years a dual control of the aircraft attached to the Royal Navy caused a great deal of muddle and misunderstanding. The aircraft were supplied by the Air Ministry. While they were embarked in H.M. Ships they were under the control of the Navy, but when disembarked they were commanded and administered by the R.A.F. The pilot personnel was 70 per cent Naval, while all the observers were Naval officers and men. In 1939 the Admiralty assumed control of the Fleet Air Arm.

Image from cigarette card of H.M.S. Eagle, with Fairey Flycatcher biplane.The first of our ships built to carry aircraft was H.M.S. Eagle, which was under construction as a battleship for the Chilean Navy when war was declared in 1914, and was bought by the British Government as she lay on the stocks in 1917. She is of 22,600 tons, but carries only 21 aircraft. The aircraft in this picture is a Fairey Flycatcher.

World War Two Royal Nay aircarft carrier Furious. Image from a cigarette card.Three heavy ships, of 22,500 tons each, were converted later into aircraft carriers – Furious, carrying 33 aeroplanes and completed in 1925; Courageous, carrying 48, completed in 1928, and Glorious, carrying 48, completed in 1930.

H.M.S. Hermes was the first ship to be designed and built as an aircraft carrier. She is of 10,850 tons, and carries only 15 aeroplanes. But design has advanced rapidly, and the more recent ships – Ark Royal and her successors – have accommodation for 70 aeroplanes.

HMS_sharkIn this picture a Blackburn Shark torpedo-bomber aircraft is seen taking off from the flight deck of H.M.S. Courageous. The wire stretching across the deck in the foreground is an “arrester” which catches on to a hook under the aircraft as it lands. The Courageous carries aircraft of various types adapted for torpedo-bombing, fighting and spotter-reconnaissance work.

HMS_RecPlaneThis shows a Fairey III F reconnaissance ‘plane taking off from H.M.S. Courageous. An aeroplane takes off and lands into the wind, the direction of the steam jet seen coming from the bows of the ship indicating to the navigator when the ship is steaming dead into the wind. The aircraft carrier Courageous belongs to what is admitted to be the Navy’s ugliest class of vessels.

Image from a cigarette card of a WWII Walrus aircraft in flight.The most popular machine in the Fleet Air Arm is the Walrus, an amphibian biplane with the propeller behind the cockpit – a “pusher.” This is essentially a reconnaissance plane, and as it is a very sturdy type of flying-boat it is very seaworthy. It is used chiefly on patrol duty on trade routes, for intercepting ships, spotting submarines and floating mines, and carrying out bombing attacks if necessary.

The Skua is a larger aircraft, a low-winged monoplane, and fighters are usually Gloucester [sic] Gladiators, small biplanes with a very high climbing speed and the utmost manoeuvrability.

Gloster Gladiator

Edited from ‘The Royal Navy’, Wm. Collins Sons and Co. Ltd., June 1941, and cigarette cards from 1936 and 1938. Aircraft design advanced so quickly during this period that the Fairey IIIF and Blackburn Shark had been withdrawn from frontline carrier service by the outbreak of war. Curiously, the 1941 book doesn’t admit that Courageous was sunk back in 1939, although it does mention the loss of H.M.S. Hood in May.

A Triple Tragedy

Aboukir_vThe image at left comes from a postcard by Raphael Tuck and Sons, published around 1908, and features the British armoured cruiser H. M. S. Aboukir. She was launched in 1900 by Fairfields of Govan, Scotland and, on completion two years later, had a short career in the Mediterranean before being withdrawn from service and laid up in reserve in 1912. The rapid development of warships at the time had made her, and the rest of the “Cressy” class to which she belonged, practically obsolete.

She was recommisioned on the outbreak of war in August 1914 and sent on patrol with the 7th Cruiser Squadron to guard the eastern approaches to the English Channel. On the morning of 22nd September, she was torpedoed by the German submarine U-9 and when Cressy and Hogue closed to rescue survivors, they were dispatched in the same way. Three cruisers and over 1400 men were lost in less than an hour. You can find the crew list here. Writer Antoine Vanner gives a thorough description of the disaster on his blog.

Aboukir

This image by artist, Norman Wilkinson, was printed in ‘Earl Kitchener and the Great War’ (1916). Captions in the book claim “one of the sailors described the last moment as follows: “The captain sings out an order just like on any ordinary occasion, ‘If any man wishes to leave the side of the ship he can do so, every man for himself,’ then we gave a cheer and in we went.”
and
“The horrors of modern warfare are illustrated by the notice issued after this disaster by the British Admiralty, which reads in part, ‘no act of humanity, whether to friend or foe, should lead to neglect of the proper precautions and dispositions of war, and no measure[s] can be taken to save life which prejudice the military situation.'”

Translated into plain language – in the event of this situation being repeated, commanders must put their own ships’ safety first and leave men in the water to their fate.

The Battle of Denmark Strait

Denmark Strait, North Atlantic, 24 May 1941.

Hood

H.M.S. Hood

In [H.M.S.] Prince of Wales, Bismarck and Prinz Eugen only a handful of men saw Hood’s end with their own eyes: the vast majority were below decks and to them the incredible news came on inter-com and by telephone, second hand. Some simply did not believe it. Prinz Eugen’s executive officer, Commander Stoos, on duty in the lower command post, hearing his captain’s voice announcing the news, said quietly, ‘Some poor fellow up there has gone off his head.’ In Bismarck’s after transmitting station Leading Seaman Eich heard Commander Schneider’s joyous shout, ‘She’s blowing up,’ and would remember the long drawn out ‘uuup’ for the rest of his life. In the after director tower Mullenheim-Rechberg heard it too, and despite orders to stick to the two [British] cruisers, couldn’t resist swinging round to see for himself. The smoke was clearing to show Hood with a broken back, in two pieces, bow and stern pointing towards the sky. As he watched, he saw the two forward turrets of Hood suddenly spit out a final salvo: it was an accident, the circuits must have been closed at the moment she was struck, but to her enemies it seemed like a last defiant and courageous gesture.

Now Prince of Wales, turning to port to obey Holland’s orders, had to go hard a-starboard to avoid the wreckage ahead, and Jasper*, through Prinz Eugen’s main rangefinder, saw on the far side of Prince of Wales a weird thing – the whole forward section of Hood, rearing up from the water like the spire of a cathedral, towering above the upper deck of Prince of Wales, as she steamed by. Inside this foresection were several hundred men, trapped topsy-turvey in the darkness of shell-room and magazine. Then Prince of Wales passed, both parts of Hood slid quickly beneath the waves, taking with them more than 1,400 men, leaving only a wreath of smoke on the surface. ‘Poor devils, poor devils!’ said Jasper aloud, echoing the thoughts of those around him; for as sailors they had just proved what sailors do not care to prove, that no ship, not even Hood, is unsinkable, and that went for Bismarck and Prinz Eugen too.
‘Pursuit, the chase and sinking of the Bismarck’, Ludovic Kennedy. Wm. Collins Sons & Co Ltd, 1974.

*Lieut-Commander Paulus Jasper, First Artillery Officer, Prinz Eugen

Force W at Scapa Flow

From ‘Sailor At Sea’ by Vice Admiral Harold Hickling, A.H. & A.W. Reed, 1965.

It was in September 1939 that Mr Churchill had been lunching in H.M.S. Southampton lying at Rosyth close to the Forth Bridge. After lunch the Captain took the First Lord onto the quarterdeck for a breath of fresh air. The sirens went and two minutes later a covey of Heinkels put down a pattern of bombs which fortunately near-missed the cruiser and the bridge though they struck a spark in Winston.

‘Decoys, that’s what we want, dummy ships!’ he exclaimed.

It was just the sort of thing that appealed to his quick, imaginative mind, indeed in the First World War he had had a dummy [H.M.S.] Queen Elizabeth built which performed off the Dardanelles and as far as is known achieved precisely nothing*.

On the face of it, it seemed a good idea. Enemy air raids on Rosyth, Scapa [Flow] and other ports were becoming more and more of a menace and our anti-aircraft defences were thin and not very effective; so, argued Winston, why not have decoys to draw the enemy bombs. Too simple. Possibly a bit too simple.

In the upshot three old New Zealand frozen-meat ships, each of about 8,000 tons gross were converted, Pakeha, Waimana and Mamari. They were taken out of mothballs in the Gareloch and sent over to Belfast, arriving at Harland and Wolff’s yard on 25th September, 1939.

Two of the ships were to represent ‘R’ class battleships, Royal Sovereign and Revenge; the third, the aircraft carrier Hermes. Mr. MacClogrie, a Naval Constructor, was in charge of the designs and a very good job he made of them. In addition to the camouflaged upperworks each ship was loaded with some 7,000 tons of stone as ballast, to keep them down as it were, and 17,000 forty-gallon drums for buoyancy, to keep them up. They had it both ways.

dummy-fleet_iwm-a-29655crop

The three ships of the decoy squadron are on the left. The real Home Fleet is in the background on the right. Photo: Imperial War Museum A29655.

The recently-promoted Commodore Hickling took command of this plywood and canvas squadron on 11th April 1940 and entered a slightly sureal world.

About 4 p.m. I clambered up a rope ladder – there were no fancy things like accommodation ladders, and as my feet touched the deck I noticed with approval my broad pendant break at the yardarm. I also noticed a sailor go up to a 15-inch gun turret, open a door in its 12-inch armour-plated side and take out a leg of mutton. The officers, all seven of them, for as Senior officer I had a staff of two, were introduced to me by the First Lieutenant; with one exception they were all Royal Naval Reserve.

My cabin was nothing more than a large rectangular wooden box. Its whitewashed walls reminded me of the waiting room in a French nunnery. There, alas, the resemblance stopped ……. Looking round it all seemed a bit strange, accustomed though I was to being pitchforked into every sort of odd job that no one else could be persuaded to take. I pressed the bell and when my steward entered with a tray of drinks I began to feel more at home.

A few days later he asked his First Lieutenant what their main armament consisted of – “Six .303 rifles, sir,” he replied. “With ammunition, of course.”

dummy-hermes_iwma-29653crop

The decoy aircraft carrier Hermes from above. Photo: Imperial War Museum A29653.

Hickling eventually persuaded his superiors that locking up three hundred officers and men in decoy ships didn’t make sense – “It’s doing them no good, nor the enemy any harm.” The squadron was left to swing around permanent moorings and the crews were dispersed to more useful duties. The ships were transferred to the Ministry of War Transport in 1941 and resumed their lives as cargo carriers.

*The real Queen Elizabeth was part of the Dardanelles campaign but, so far, I’ve found no record of a decoy taking her place. Can anyone help with this?