The Amphion Tragedy


Thomas Tegg’s depiction of the blast

It had been a busy few days for Captain Israel Pellow and the 219 officers and men that made up the crew of HMS Amphion, an Amazon-class fifth-rate frigate sporting an armament of no less than 32 guns. In the early afternoon of the 22nd September 1796, the ship was alive with the kind of activity associated with the eve of departure from port. In 1796, HMS Amphion was a 16-year old warship and had seen action against American revolutionary forces having participated in a successful raid on New London in Connecticut on September 10th 1781.  The warship had also seen action against the French having recaptured the British sloop Bonetta, which had been captured at Yorktown.

Laying in Plymouth harbour alongside a sheer-hulk, a type of floating crane, that was assisting in repairs and refitting the sailing vessel, the number of persons onboard had swelled to well over 300 as family members visited their husbands, fathers and brothers before they sailed the following morning. Captain Pellow on the other hand was waiting for another type of visitor to come aboard his vessel. A 64-gun Dutch warship, the Overyssel, was also in Plymouth and expected to sail the next day as well. Pellow had invited her captain, William Swaffield, to dine aboard the British warship that afternoon with him and his first Lieutenant. The Dutch ship’s captain accepted and the three men had sat down together in the captain’s cabin aboard Amphion before 1600hrs to dine together.

Suddenly and without prior warning, Pellow and his guests were hurled out of their seats as the ship shook violently and roared with the deep, booming sound of an explosion. The three men were badly dazed and confused by the violence of the blast and as the floor beneath them began to change angle it was clear that some terrible calamity had befell the ship. Pellow and the First Lieutenant, both barely able to stand from their own injuries, made a desperate bid for survival by throwing themselves out of the galley window unsure if they were fit enough to swim or not but certain they would die if they remained. Pellow managed to clamber on to a chain from the sheer-hulk and as luck would have it a boat that had rushed to the scene spotted and then rescued the two men but their dinner guest, Captain Swaffield, failed to materialise. A Royal Marine who was guarding the door to the cabin also survived but had no recollection of events from the initial blast up to when he too was rescued by a boat in the water making his own escape a complete mystery.

The blast originated on the aft gun deck and was so powerful that it threw mangled bodies and splintered timber high in to the air and even sent four of the ship’s 32 guns over the side and on to the sheer-hulk. The majority of those who perished were killed in the initial blast which caused scenes of appalling horror aboard the warship with sailors and their family members overcrowded on her decks being cut down by flying debris. In one horrifying scene, a wife of one of the sailors had the lower half of her body blown clean off. Her upper half was found still clutching her infant that was, amazingly, still alive and rescued by one of the other survivors who managed to get them both off before the vessel went down.

Exact figures are difficult to ascertain given the fact that families were allowed onboard to say goodbye to their loved ones but most sources agree that at least 300 perished in the blast including women and children. The remains of the warship sank alongside the sheer-hulk in over 60ft of water with pieces of the warship and some of her crew still washing up on the shore months later. Captain Swaffield’s body was found a whole month later sporting a massive skull fracture which was presumed to have occurred during his escape attempt.

Lacking the modern forensic technology of today, the precise cause of the blast will never truly be known. However, an investigation in to the ship’s company following the blast revealed that at least one gunner was known to be pilfering supplies of gunpowder for sale on shore. When questioned about the sailor, one survivor remembered seeing him drunk shortly before the blast occurred leading many to believe that he had gone down to the gunpowder stores possibly to steal more of the powder to sell or trade for liquor. Either through smoking or dropping a lamp in his drunken state, he detonated the gunpowder.

The horrific scene of the mother and child was later remembered in a poem by English poet Felicia Hemans;

Till then we had not wept—
But well our gushing hearts might say,
That there a Mother slept!
For her pale arms a babe had prest
With such a wreathing grasp,
The fire had pass’d o’er that fond breast,
Yet not undone the clasp.
Deep in her bosom lay his head,
With half-shut violet eye—
He had known little of her dread,
Nought of her agony.
Oh! human love, whose yearning heart,
Through all things vainly true,
So stamps upon thy mortal part
Its passionate adieu:
Surely thou hast another lot,
There is some home for thee,
Where thou shalt rest, rememb’ring not
The moaning of the sea.





100 Years Ago Today…Jutland

It’s been 100 years since one of the most decisive naval battles of the 20th century. The Battle of Jutland took place between May 31st to June 1st 1916. The battle has been viewed by historians as a tactical defeat but a vital strategic victory for the British that helped contain the German surface fleet in port for the rest of the war.

34 Years Ago Today – The Lowest Point

listing HMS Coventry Falklands WarOn May 25th 1982, HMS Coventry and HMS Broadsword took up position to the north-west of Falkland Sound to act as a decoy to draw Argentinian aircraft away from the landings at San Carlos Bay. As the Argentinians attacked, Coventry knocked out two A-4 Skyhawks with her Sea Dart SAMs before she was struck by three bombs just above the water line on the port side. One of the bombs exploded beneath the computer room, destroying it and the nearby operations room and incapacitating almost all the senior officers.

Another weapon entered the Forward Engine Room, exploding beneath the Junior Ratings Dining Room. Having sustained critical damage, the vessel began listing to port. The blast from the second bomb breached the bulkhead between the forward and aft engine rooms, exposing the largest open space in the ship to uncontrollable flooding. Within 20 minutes Coventry had been abandoned and not long after she completely capsized before sinking.

Nineteen of her crew were lost and a further thirty injured while 170 crewmembers were rescued by Broadsword. With a typically British sense of humour, her crew sang “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” from Monty Python’s Life of Brian while they waited to be rescued.

Atlantic Conveyor falklands exocetOn the same day the merchant ship, S.S. Atlantic Conveyor was hit by two AM39 air launched Exocet missiles fired by a pair of Armada Argentina (Argentine Navy) Dassault Super Étendard jet strike-fighters. The Argentine goal was to sink the British carrier HMS Hermes but British defences managed to decoy them away. Unfortunately, the missiles then locked on to Atlantic Conveyor striking it on the port quarter killing twelve men including the ship’s master, Captain Ian North, who was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Service Cross (DSC). The ship was the first British merchant vessel lost to enemy action since World War II.

The sinking of the Atlantic Conveyor was a major blow to the British operation to retake the islands. The vessel was carrying a number of Chinook heavylift helicopters that were a key part of the British plan to move troops across the islands. Only one aircraft survived the attack meaning that British troops had to make the now legendary “yomp”across the islands – marching with full kit – which undoubtedly increased the length of the war. It could have been a lot worse however. The vessel had unloaded a contingent of RAF Harrier GR.3s earlier in the week which were now providing close air support for British troops.

May 25th 1982 was the Royal Navy’s lowest point in the war.


34 Years Ago Today – HMS Antelope Is Hit

HMS Antelope

On May 23rd 1982, HMS Antelope was hit during an air strike on the British ships at San Carlos where British troops were being landed on to the Falklands. The attacking Argentine pilot flew his aircraft so low that as he passed over Antelope his wing struck the radar mast although he was able to maintain control and return to Argentina.

One of his stick of bombs broke through the hull of the ship killing steward Mark Steven however its arming pin had failed to engage. A follow up attack saw a second bomb strike the ship but again the weapon failed to detonate. The ship was moved to more sheltered waters and then largely abandoned as a bomb disposal team worked through the night to disarm it.

After three attempts to disarm one of the weapons the team used a small explosive charge to try and destroy it in a controlled explosion. Unfortunately this detonated the weapon and in the early hours of May 24th the night was illuminated by an immense explosion as the ship’s hull was torn open. A newspaper journalist nearby photographed the blast and the picture has become one of most enduring images of the war.

34 Years Ago Today – HMS Ardent Is Hit

TYPE 21 5a

On May 21st 1982, the Type 21 frigate HMS Ardent was supporting the British landings on the Falklands at San Carlos when it was hit by two bombs from an Argentine combat aircraft both of which landed on the warship’s flight deck. The vessel remained afloat as firefighting efforts, including support from HMS Yarmouth, tried to save the vessel but later in the day the ship was hit yet again in another air attack by Argentine pilots who saw it as a target of opportunity.

From a tactical perspective this was a mistake by the Argentine pilots since Ardent was already out of the fight due to the damage sustained in the first attack and was certainly out of the war. Therefore by attacking Ardent they were risking their lives for a tactically insignificant target, throwing away their bombs that would have better served being used against one of the other RN ships that hadn’t been hit yet. The damage was so severe that the next day the vessel sank.

One of the cold realities of war regarding the loss of Ardent is that it was better that it got hit by the Argentine bombs rather than the troopships and landing craft it was protecting during the landings. The troopships were crammed full of soldiers and several of them were requisitioned ocean liners that had no armoured protection or adequate countermeasures to tackle combat damage. In this respect, Ardent’s sacrifice meant the Royal Navy achieved its mission which in the Nelsonian tradition is an honourable death for any ship. Unfortunately, Ardent would not be the only casualty sustained during the week long landings at San Carlos.

BBC Radio 4 – The Day After The Falklands Were Invaded

A collection of radio broadcastings made by BBC Radio 4 the day after the Falkland Islands were invaded by Argentinian forces on April 2nd 1982.

(a) 10 am News Bulletin.
(b) The Week In Westminster with Robert Carvel and John Browne MP, Joch Stallard MP.
(c) Chimes of Big Ben.
(d) 11 am News Bulletin.
(e) Parliament Division whether to extend hours from 2 pm to 5 pm. (Failed)
(f) Speech and Statement by Margaret Thatcher MP, Prime Minister (24 mins).
(g) Speech by Michael Foot MP, Leader of the Opposition. (about 25 mins).
(h) Speech by Edward Du Cann MP (7 mins).

Submarine Patrol (1943)

U-boats are evil. Submarines are good.

That’s the general impression the Royal Navy wanted to give the public during the war. The fact that Germany’s submarines were called U-boats helped distinguish them in propaganda films such as this even when tactics and operations by both sides differed only little. Nevertheless this is a fascinating – if somewhat scripted – account of RN submarine operations during the war.