Friday, 31 January 2014

Anecdote Saturday. HMS Birkenhead

The HMS Birkenhead was an iron, paddle-wheel frigate built in 1845 by Laird, the Scottish shipbuilder who developed the town Birkenhead. She weighed 1400 tons and was powered by twin 564 hp steam engines driving paddles (20 ft in diameter), and averaging 12 knots. She could complete the England to Simon's Town voyage in 37 days, which was fast by the standards of the day. Originally she was fitted with masts for sails rigged as a brig. Initially called the Vulcan and used as a frigate she was then converted to a troop ship in 1848.

When converted to a troop ship, a forecastle and poop deck were added (for accommodation) and a third mast fitted. This changed her sail plan to barquentine. The Birkenhead was not commissioned as a frigate for two reasons:

The Royal Navy's warships were using screw propellers rather than the less efficient paddles.

The Admiralty believed that cannon shot against an iron hull would create jagged holes, difficult to plug.

The Birkenhead was one of the first iron-hulled ships with a total of 12 watertight compartments. The Admiralty made one adjustment to the design moving the paddle shafts several feet forward thus creating stability problems requiring careful stowage. She had a round stern and a bow with the figurehead of Vulcan holding a hammer in one hand.

In December 1851, under the command of Captain Robert Salmond, the Birkenhead departed Cork in Ireland for Simon's Town. She left Simon's Town on 25 February after loading 350 tons of coal and provisions. Her manifest included 20 women and children, 138 crew, 480 army officers and drafted men, to assist in the Frontier War, Eastern Cape. At Gansbaai, 140 km from Cape Town she was wrecked on rocks. As in the case of the Titanic many years later she was not equipped with sufficient lifeboats forcing soldiers to stand aside while women and children boarded - this gave rise to the 'women and children first' protocol at sea. Of the 643 on board only 193 survived.

Captain Salmond had set a course, hugging the coast (to avoid the counter Agullas Current) within 3 miles of the shore. Sea conditions were reported to be calm and the night clear. Thomas M Hemy wrote in 1892:

"Shortly before 02:00 on 26 February, while Birkenhead was travelling at a speed of 8 knots (15 km/h), the leadsman made soundings of 12 fathoms (22 m). Before he could take another sounding, she struck an uncharted rock at 34°38′42″S 19°17′9″E Coordinates: 34°38′42″S 19°17′9″E with 2 fathoms (3.7 m) of water beneath her bows and 11 fathoms (20 m) at her stern."

"The rock lies near Danger Point (today near Gansbaai, Western Cape). Barely submerged, it is clearly visible in rough seas, but it is not immediately apparent in calmer conditions."

"Captain Salmond rushed on deck and ordered the anchor to be dropped, the quarter-boats to be lowered, and a turn astern to be given by the engines. However, as the ship backed off the rock, the sea rushed into the large hole made by the collision and the ship struck again, buckling the plates of the forward bilge and ripping open the bulkheads."

"Shortly, the forward compartments and the engine rooms were flooded, and over 100 soldiers were drowned in their berths."

"The surviving soldiers mustered and awaited their officers' orders. Salmond ordered Colonel Seton to send men to the chain pumps; sixty were directed to this task, sixty more were assigned to the tackles of the lifeboats, and the rest were assembled on the poop deck in order to raise the forward part of the ship."

"The women and children were placed in the ship's cutter, which lay alongside. Two other boats were manned, but one was immediately swamped and the other could not be launched due to poor maintenance and paint on the winches, leaving only three boats available. The two large boats, with capacities of 150 men each, were not among them."

"The surviving officers and men assembled on deck, where Lieutenant-Colonel Seton of the 74th Foot took charge of all military personnel and stressed the necessity of maintaining order and discipline to his officers. As 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."

Charles Dixon wrote in 1901:

"Ten minutes after the first impact, the engines still turning astern, the ship struck again beneath the engine room, tearing open her bottom. She instantly broke in two just aft of the mainmast. The funnel went over the side and the forepart of the ship sank at once. The stern section, now crowded with men, floated for a few minutes before sinking."

"Just before she sank, Salmond called out that "all those who can swim jump overboard, and make for the boats". Colonel Seton, however, recognising that rushing the lifeboats would risk swamping them and endangering the women and children, ordered the 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."

"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 taken 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."

Lieutenant J.F. Girardot, 43rd Light Infantry, wrote to his father, 1 March 1852:

"The next morning, the schooner Lioness discovered one of the cutters, and after saving the occupants of the second boat made her way to the scene of the disaster."

"Arriving in the afternoon, she found 40 people still clinging to the rigging. It was reported that of the approximately 643 people aboard, only 193 were saved. Captain Edward WC Wright of the 91st Argyllshire Regiment was the most senior army officer to survive; he was awarded a brevet majority for his actions during the ordeal, dated 26 February 1852."

"The number of personnel aboard is in some doubt, but an estimate of 638 was published in The Times. It is generally thought that the survivors comprised 113 soldiers (all ranks), 6 Royal Marines, 54 seamen (all ranks), 7 women, 13 children and at least one male civilian,[18] but these numbers cannot be substantiated, as muster rolls and books were lost with the ship."

"Of the horses, eight made it safely to land, while the ninth had its leg broken while being pushed into the sea."

Captain Edward WC Wright of the 91st Argyllshire Regiment gave witness testimony at the hearing:

"The order and regularity that prevailed on board, from the moment the ship struck till she totally disappeared, far exceeded anything that I had thought could be affected by the best discipline; and it is the more to be wondered at seeing that most of the soldiers were but a short time in the service."
"Everyone did as he was directed and there was not a murmur or cry amongst them until the ship made her final plunge – all received their orders and carried them out as if they were embarking instead of going to the bottom – I never saw any embarkation conducted with so little noise or confusion."

As a direct result of the disaster Danger Point lighthhouse was erected near Gansbaai. A Court of Inquiry was convened 8 May 1852 at Portsmouth. None of the senior naval officers on board the Birkenhead had survived contributing to the Court's decision that no one was to blame.

A memorial in St Giles' Cathedral, Edinburgh pays tribute:

"In memory of Lieut.-Colonel Alexander Seton, Ensign Alex. C. Russell, and forty-eight N.C.O.s and men of the 74th Highlanders who were drowned at the wreck of H.M.S. 'Birkenhead' on the 26th February 1852, off Point Danger, Cape of Good Hope, after all the women and children on board had been safely landed in the ship's boats."

Kaiser Frederick Wilhelm IV of Prussia officially recognised those lost and rev Dohne held a memorial service in their memory. Queen Victoria was responsible for the Birkenhead monument at the Chelsea Royal Hospital. Prints of the painting by Thomas Hemy 'The Wreck of the Birkenhead' were made available to the public. South Africa issued a gold coin in 1977, 'Heroes of the Birkenhead Medallion'. And finally, Rudyard Kipling wrote:

"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
The phrase also appears in Robert A. Heinlein's 1956 Double Star:
I knew I was sunk-but, damn it, if you are caught by the Birkenhead Drill, the least you owe yourself is to stand at attention while the ship goes down.
And in David Weber's 1991 novel Mutineers' Moon:
And if he was caught in the Birkenhead Drill, he could at least try to do his best till the ship went down."

The story of the Birkenhead lives with us today, vivid in the words of survivor accounts.




My book 'Waratah Revisited' will be available by 12 December, via Amazon. I explore the human aspect of the tragedy and take a closer look at the Inquiry into the loss of the Waratah. Revelations abound. Don't miss it!

2 comments:

Mole said...

'Women and children first' - though thought of as the Birkenhead Drill this was actually nothing new in maritime history: a similar protocol had been observed in previous shipwrecks, including that of the Abercrombie Robinson in Table Bay, ten years earlier. This ship was carrying 700 souls, including detachments of the 27th Regiment and Cape Mounted Rifles as well as the 91st Argyllshire Regiment (numbering 450), but due to the discipline of all on board, everyone was saved. This story ranks alongside that of the Birkenhead for human courage and selflessness while in peril on the sea.

ANDREW VAN RENSBURG said...

thank you Mole. 'Women and chldren first' strikes me as the decent thing to do and practised in an era when such principles were revered.