Few navies can claim to have the rich heritage and world experience of the Royal Navy. For nearly 200 years it policed the biggest empire in the world, fought numerous wars and actions and explored vast areas of the new worlds of the Americas and the Pacific. But such exploits inevitably come at a cost in ships and lives.
Here are six commissioned Royal Navy ships that have vanished in the course of their duties.
HMS Sappho in 1858
Built in 1837, HMS Sappho was a Royal Navy brig that in the course of its career became well known on both sides of the Atlantic following an incident in 1857 when the vessel was enforcing a blockade against slave ships operating on the west coast of Africa. On the 9th of May the ship intercepted the American slave ship Panchita and a Royal Navy prize crew sailed the vessel and its crew back to New York. The owners of the slave ship were understandably upset at the loss of their earnings and demanded the prize crew were arrested thus sparking a major diplomatic incident between London and Washington.
The Sappho’s captain was heavily criticised for the incident and in January 1858 he received word that he was to sail to Australia from the Cape of Good Hope. The vessel never arrived. Due to the distances involved in the journey it was not until later in the year that it was realized the vessel was missing and a search was undertaken but to this day no trace of the ship or her crew have ever been found.
The most likely cause for the disappearance was a large storm front that swept through the area the vessel should have been sailing. Indeed if this is true Sappho would not have been the only loss to the Royal Navy as another vessel, HMS Camilla, was also lost after capsizing killing over 50 of her crew while the survivors clung desperately to pieces of the ship that remained afloat. Given the public interest in Sappho following the incident with the American slavers it was natural that conspiracy theorists and sensationalist journalists would have their say and in 1859 unsubstantiated reports claiming the ship had been wrecked on an Australian island after the captain had gone insane began circulating. These reports were purely fictitious but in one final chapter of the story two townships on the coast of Victoria, Australia claim to have descendants from an unknown wrecked ship that many believe was the Sappho.
HMS Condor in 1901
HMS Condor was barely three years old when it went missing in the Pacific. A steel sloop with steam engines and barkentine-rigging she was built at Sheerness Royal Dockyard and launched in 1898. In 1901 HMS Condor left British Colombia bound for Hawaii to join the Pacific Squadron with a crew of 140 including 10 cadets when she was caught in a storm off Vancouver. When the vessel failed to arrive at Hawaii, vessels from the Pacific Squadron and the United States Navy began an intensive search but they found nothing.
The only indication of the Condor’s fate was a solitary cap that washed up on a beach at Vancouver Island. Then in 1949 a fisherman discovered wreckage from a ship in his nets which resembled that of what would be found aboard the Condor. However efforts to retrace the fisherman’s course in the hope of finding the wreck failed to produce the ship and therefore it cannot confirmed that wreckage came from the lost vessel.
HMS Atalanta in 1880
Launched in 1844 Atalanta was formerly the Spartan-class sixth-rate frigate HMS Juno but in 1878 it was renamed HMS Atalanta after briefly being named HMS Mariner. Many of the older sailors in the Royal Navy disliked sailing on a ship that had been renamed once let alone twice as to sail on a renamed vessel was considered bad luck.
In 1880 the 36-year old vessel was being utilised as a training ship taking up to 300 cadets at a time on training cruises around the world; an amazing experience for a 15-year old boy but one that sparked enormous controversy after an incident in which the vessel was caught in a severe storm. Many of the inexperienced cadet crew became unable to function due to seasickness or sheer terror leaving the 10 instructors to battle the elements and the top heavy ship alone. At one point the vessel rolled to 26 degrees and almost capsized but in the 19th century Royal Navy which was still riding high on the traditions of Nelson the danger was overlooked as merely part of the trade and would toughen up the cadets.
In January 1880 the vessel left Bermuda after a Caribbean cruise for its return journey to England. When the vessel was listed as overdue there was a frantic effort to begin a search as the British people felt an almost paternal responsibility to find their 300 boys. Another Royal Navy ship, HMS Avon, found debris floating in the water but its origin couldn’t be confirmed although it is always been assumed to be from the Atalanta. The British people were horrified at the loss and it was a major embarrassment to the Royal Navy which appeared reckless with the lives of its cadets.
HMS Snapper in 1941
If there is one place a vessel can get lost it’s in the fog of war and that’s exactly what happened to HMS Snapper, an S-class submarine operational at the start of World War II. The S-class submarine fleet of 68 boats were built in batches of three. The first batch of 12 boats suffered a frighteningly high attrition rate and this led to the fatalistic nursery rhyme 12 Little S-Boats. Snapper was the seventh S-class submarine launched in 1934 and upon the outbreak of war it was attacked by RAF aircraft which mistook it for a German U-Boat. Later, Snapper went on to sink five German surface vessels including two minesweepers.
On the 29th January 1941 Snapper left port to begin a patrol in the Bay of Biscay. The submarine was instructed to undertake a patrol in the area for a week and half and then return to port with an escort vessel. Snapper’s escort arrived at the rendezvous point but the submarine itself was never heard from again. The most obvious explanation is that the submarine was lost to enemy action and indeed a German minesweeper claimed to have sunk a British submarine during this time but the incident occurred far outside of where Snapper should have been operating and no trace of either Snapper or the submarine the Germans claimed to have sunk has ever been found.
HMS Terror & Erebus in 1845
Perhaps the most enduring disappearances in the history of the Royal Navy was of two vessels in the course of the same incident. In this instance we know what happened to the crews but the ships themselves remained missing for over 150 years with one vessel still missing. The story begins with the decision by the British government to investigate the Northwest Passage between Antarctica and northern Canada. The North-West Passage was still considered unnavigable at the time and part of the mission was to take magnetic compass readings in the hope of creating a path through the passage which would effectively open up a regular link between the North Atlantic and northern Pacific shaving off months of journey time south.
The expedition was led by James Clark Ross who had made three previous Arctic expeditions but this was his most ambitious. The two ships departed in 1845 and within two months they had arrived in northern waters waiting for the weather to improve before attempting to make the passage. A whaling ship would be the last Europeans to view the expedition before they disappeared. Over the coming decades an investigation would reveal the horrors that befell the two crews. During the crossing of the passage both ships became grounded in ice with no hope of freeing them. The crews therefore abandoned them and attempted to survive in the barren wilderness where they began dying of exposure and lack of food. None survived. Inuit tribes who encountered the unfortunate sailors reported that they observed them engaging in cannibalism whenever one of their number died. Initially dismissed the reports were later confirmed when a handful of bodies were recovered having been preserved in the cold.
The two ships however were nowhere to be found and were presumed to have been crushed by shifting ice. Pieces of wreckage from Erebus were found by a Canadian expedition in 2014 and then in April 2015 the wreck itself was found however no trace of Terror has yet been uncovered.