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).

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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.

Enjoy.

November 11th 1940 – The Attack on Taranto

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November 11th is always remembered as Armistice Day; the date in which the First World War ended and the British and Commonwealth peoples take a moment to remember all those who have fallen in the name of our freedom. It is however also the anniversary of an incredible attack that took place in 1940.

By November 1940 nearly all of Western Europe was under Nazi German occupation. The RAF had narrowly defeated the Luftwaffe and although Hitler had postponed Operation: Sea Lion, his invasion of  Britain, the war was now beginning to heat up in the Mediterranean. Fascist Italian dictator, Benito Mussolini, had aspirations for building a new Roman Empire in Africa and now he was poised to capture British Empire territory in North Africa. In order to do that he had to defeat the powerful but desperately overstretched Royal Navy with his own fleet of big-gun capital ships who had the advantage of operating from their home port of Taranto.

The British Admiralty knew they had to take these ships out quickly and prevent them from leaving the harbour. Many plans were devised and rejected until finally the decision was taken for the Fleet Air Arm to launch a daring attack using Fairey Swordfish biplane torpedo-bombers. It was a bold but dangerous plan and even the pilots involved expected a 50% casualty rate but the Italian ships had to be destroyed to help secure the Mediterranean and keep the supply lines to North Africa open.

The attack force was launched from HMS Illustrious at 2100hrs on November 11th 1940 and was an incredible success. During the course of the night the Italian Navy lost half of its capital ships while many other ships and port facilities were damaged. Despite such pessimistic casualty projections only two Swordfish were downed in the attack. It was a dramatic display of the potency of naval aircraft, even antiquated ones such as the Fairey Swordfish, and this was not lost on the Japanese who would be inspired by Taranto in their planning for their attack on Pearl Harbour a year later. The Taranto attack itself was actually inspired by an earlier plan to attack the Imperial German Navy in Wilhelmshaven during the First World War (see World War I’s Abandoned “Pearl Harbour” Attack).

This year marks the 75th anniversary of this incredible story.

Tough to Sink

S.S. Laurentic before her conversion to armed merchant cruiser in 1939 (u-boat.net)

S.S. Laurentic before her conversion to armed merchant cruiser in 1939 (u-boat.net)

It has long been the practice in wartime for the British government to requisition civilian vessels for war service. Often these vessels are used in the logistics role supporting the Royal Navy at sea or the British Army and Royal Air Force in foreign lands. The practice has been used as late as the 1982 Falklands War where perhaps most famously the ocean liner Queen Elizabeth II was used to ferry over 3000 troops to the South Atlantic. Using civilian ships in wartime is a precarious business at best. They are seldom designed with the same level of protection a warship is afforded making them very vulnerable and their vital role in supporting the war effort makes them highly prized targets for the enemy.

One such civilian ship taken over for use by the Royal Navy was the Cunard White Star Line passenger ship the Laurentic. Requisitioned by the Admiralty a week before Germany invaded Poland on September 1st 1939 the vessel was put in to dock for conversion to an armed merchant cruiser which was completed in a remarkably short space of time. HMS Laurentic F51 was accepted in to service on October 15th 1939. As part of her conversion she was armed with seven Breech Loading 5.5inch (140mm) Mk I guns and three QF 4inch (102mm) Mk.XVI naval guns. She was also fitted with a quantity of depth charges for use against submarines.

The vessel was, like many of her kind, primarily employed on patrol and escort duties; armed merchant cruisers were effectively the last line of defence with the Royal Navy’s main fleet and aircraft being the first. Her start to the war was relatively uneventful but all that changed on the evening of November 3rd 1940. A little after 2140 hours her commanding officer, Capt E.P. Vivian RN, was informed that the radio room had received a distress call from an unescorted merchantman, the Casanare, stating it had been attacked by a U-Boat. Along with another armed merchant cruiser, HMS Patroclus, Laurentic raced to the scene west of Ireland at a place called Bloody Foreland.

A sister-ship to Casanare (wrecksite.eu)

A sister-ship to Casanare (wrecksite.eu)

Unknown to Captain Vivian and his men they were about to face off against one of Germany’s greatest U-Boat aces, the brash and skilled Kapitänleutnant Otto Kretschmer (known as “Silent Otto”) and his crew of U-99. Kretschmer’s attack had been a textbook example of U-Boat warfare, catching the Casanare completely by surprise. The torpedo struck just aft of the vessel’s bridge and she began to list heavily enough for the crew to begin abandoning ship. The wireless operator aboard U-99 suddenly found his headset alive with messages between their victim and the two approaching ships all of which were transmitted uncoded and in plain language.

Kretschmer continued to shadow the sinking Casanare while surfaced and it was not long before he detected the two ships coming to its aid. Picking his moment carefully, Kretschmer waited for the Laurentic to come in to his sights and at 2250hrs he unleashed his deadly arsenal on his second unsuspecting victim of the night (this early in the war few ships had radar to detect a surfaced U-Boat at night but by 1945 this kind of operation would have been suicide for a U-Boat commander). Launched from a distance of one and a half kilometres and incredibly while the U-Boat was turning the torpedo struck the Laurentic amidship near the boiler room tearing open a gaping hole in her side. Kretschmer watched the ship expecting it to sink and indeed a number of her crew had leapt overboard in the chaos of the blast but as the smoke dissipated the Laurentic proved that she was not done for yet and remained stubbornly afloat.

Kretschmer made two more attacks on the Laurentic, one at 2320hrs and another at 2330hrs with the range now having decreased to just 250m. The crew of the Laurentic briefly spotted the U-Boat on the surface and began shelling the submarine which quickly slipped away. The Laurentic was now heavily damaged and was riding much lower in the water than it should be convincing Kretschmer that the ship was finally done for and so he turned his U-Boat away to assess his situation.

hms patroclus

HMS Patroclus (u-boat.net)

In the meantime, HMS Patroclus had arrived on station and began efforts to rescue the crew of the Laurentic many of whom were abandoning the ship. The Patroclus’ Captain, William Wynter, ordered that two depth charges be launched over the side in an effort to frighten the U-boat away. He couldn’t have known that Kretschmer was still on the surface unseen in the night. Believing he had successfully drove off the U-Boat, Wynter’s crew began to rescue their comrades but Kretschmer had come about and at 0022hrs the Patroclus was hit by a torpedo from U-99 killing an unknown number of men aboard a lifeboat from the Laurentic that was being hauled aboard at the time. Like the Laurentic the Patroclus refused to sink and twenty minutes later at 0044hrs a second torpedo was launched in to the ship. The torpedo malfunctioned and missed its aim point hitting below the foremast. No doubt gritting his teeth Kretschmer fired a third torpedo at 0118 hrs but as he did so the British lookouts spotted the U-Boat and Kretschmer found his vessel taking fire forcing him to flee yet again.

Dumbfounded by his enemy’s refusal to sink, Kretschmer searched for his first target, the Casanare, to confirm it had indeed sunk. Two lifeboats bobbing in the water at her last known position offered the proof he was looking for when suddenly the air around him growled with the sound of aeroengines as an RAF Shorts Sunderland flying boat appeared over the scene. Kretschmer ordered his U-Boat to dive and the RAF aircraft was unable to launch its weapons but remained on station trying to locate the submarine.

Kretschmer used his time submerged wisely and reloaded the torpedo tubes. With the sound of the Sunderland’s engines dissipating he felt confident enough to surface at 0330 hours. Rather arrogantly he went back to the site of his attack on the two armed merchant cruisers and saw that Laurentic and Patroclus had still yet to sink! At 0435hrs he fired a fourth torpedo at Laurentic which struck astern. The blast ignited the depth charges stored in that area resulting in a huge explosion. The Laurentic’s luck ran out and the ship began to sink by the stern disappearing forever.

Kretschmer then turned on the Patroclus but as he did so his own lookouts spotted a destroyer, HMS Hesperus, approaching on the horizon. Rather than be satisfied with sinking the Casanare and the Laurentic he made a hasty attack on the Patroclus. At 0516hrs a fifth torpedo struck the ship fired from U-99 but the British ship refused to go down one last time prompting Kretschmer to fire a sixth torpedo. That was the end of the Patroclus and the hull crumbled into pieces before finally sinking. 114 sailors had been killed in the whole incident.

Kretschmer and the crew of U-99 celebrate in late 1940 (commons.wikimedia)

Kretschmer and the crew of U-99 celebrate in late 1940 (commons.wikimedia)

Kretschmer immediately ordered his U-Boat to dive as the destroyer zeroed in on him. Kretschmer and his men now paid for their victory as they were repeatedly depth charged by the Hesperus but the destroyer failed to score a direct hit and Kretschmer returned to Germany a hero.

So just what was the secret behind the Laurentic and the Patroclus that kept them afloat for so long? Was it excellent damage control techniques? Perhaps it was superb craftsmanship in the construction of the two vessels? Actually it was neither. It was in fact the placing of thousands of empty oil drums inside the hull of the ship. This dramatically increased the overall buoyancy of the vessels which meant that despite several gaping holes in the hull the barrels kept the vessels afloat making them very tough to sink.

The Last Air Battle of World War II

This is the second part of a two part article covering the first and last actions of the Royal Navy’s Fleet Air Arm fighters during World War II. To read the part one covering the first air to air combat by a Fleet Air Arm fighter CLICK HERE

Supermarine Seafire Indefatigable 2

Supermarine Seafire III aboard HMS Indefatigable in 1945 carrying the roundel with bar markings of the British Pacific Fleet designed to distinguish them from Japanese markings.

August 15th 1945 and the deck of the British aircraft carrier HMS Indefatigable sailed through the waters to the east of Japan’s capital city, Tokyo. The deck was abuzz with activity just like any other day in the nearly six year old war as Fairey Fireflies and American built Grumman Avengers were being readied for an attack on Japanese targets around the Tokyo Bay area. Like his comrades Sub-Lieutenant Fred Hockley had no idea that they were passing through the final hours of the most destructive conflict in history.

Hailing from Cambridge, Hockley’s early life was every bit the story of middle class England. The son of a foreman with the water board and heavily involved in his local church the war in the Pacific against the Japanese was almost literally a world away from his home turf. A keen swimmer he joined the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve as the war broke out and worked towards his goal of becoming a naval fighter pilot.

Supermarine Seafires aboard HMS Indefatigable (armouredcarriers.com)

Supermarine Seafire aboard HMS Indefatigable (armouredcarriers.com)

Hockley was now a section leader and was going to lead a flight of five aircraft whose job it would be to protect the larger Fireflies and Avengers from enemy fighters. His aircraft was the Supermarine Seafire III, the naval counterpart of the legendary Supermarine Spitfire fighter of Battle of Britain fame. Sitting in Indefatigable’s hangar with its wings folded up to make it easier to store inside the cramped confines of an aircraft carrier the Seafire looked nothing like its more glamorous land based forebear in this configuration. For the pilots of the RAF the Spitfire was often described as “love at first flight” but for the Royal Navy’s Fleet Air Arm the Seafire’s reception was a little cooler.

At the outbreak of the war the Fleet Air Arm’s main fighter was the Fairey Fulmar supported by numbers of Blackburn Skua fighter-bombers and Blackburn Roc turret fighters. All three of these aircraft were large with at least two crew and were slower and less manoeuvrable than their land based counterparts as a result. What they were however was tough. They could slam down on the pitching deck of an aircraft carrier as it surged its way through the choppy North Atlantic and probably do it a second time. And a third. And fourth. Pre-war thinking on naval air power within the Fleet Air Arm (which was still an RAF operation until 1939) saw naval fighters as a way protecting the fleet from long range maritime patrol aircraft and bombers with little or no fighter vs. fighter combat in mind – the Admiralty believed that land based fighters lacked the range to challenge them and no one else in Europe had carriers except for allied France. This quickly proved incorrect however and by the time the Royal Navy was heavily involved in the fighting in the Mediterranean it was obvious that the Fleet Air Arm needed modern single seat fighters to match the Germans and Italians.

The RN deemed the ealry Seafires unsuitable (FleetAirArmArchive)

The Seafire was a difficult aircraft to bring aboard a carrier (FleetAirArmArchive)

The Hawker Hurricane proved it had sea legs with its legendary robust design making it ideal for conversion to carrier operations but the Hurricane was also falling behind the competition. Therefore the Admiralty found itself looking at converting the Spitfire for naval use. Very quickly it was proven however that the Spitfire was hardly an ideal carrier aircraft. Its airframe was more fragile than a Hurricane or Fulmar and its narrow landing gear made bringing the aircraft back to the ship just as dangerous as fighting the enemy; it was like riding a unicycle compared to the wide landing gear arrangements of other naval fighters. The Fleet Air Arm demanded a whole host of changes to the naval Spitfire to make it suitable but there was no time. They were needed now and the first Seafires were simply Spitfire Vs with arrestor gear. Nevertheless in the air they did provide a more potent response to the Italians and the Germans and development continued.

By the time Fred Hockley climbed in to his Seafire III on August 15th 1945 the Seafire had certainly matured and was a tougher, faster and better armed beast more suited to carrier operations than the earlier variants although the main problem of the narrow undercarriage during landing remained a constant concern. In the Pacific against the Japanese the Seafire III, at that time the fastest Spitfire variant yet, had proven every bit the equal of the Japanese fighters such as the Mitsubishi A6M2 Zero (an aircraft just as legendary as the Spitfire) especially in the hands of battle hardened British and Commonwealth pilots.

Hockley was confident as he took off with his section from No.894 NAS that day that they could match anything the Japanese threw against them and that in the end it would be down to individual skill that would be the deciding factor in any combat. His five Seafires were supported by another three Seafires from No.887 NAS and the fighters along with the attack force headed for Tokyo Bay and in to the heart of Japan’s defences. To the east, somewhat poetically it could be said, the rising sun climbed in to the sky behind the British pilots as if signalling to them that in just a few hours at noon the Japanese Empire would fall to history.

It’s difficult to imagine what Hockley and his men in the formation must have been thinking as they approached Tokyo. The Americans had promised the war would be over by now after they had unleashed the most destructive weapon in history on Japan, the atomic bomb, not once but twice. Still, to the average Tommy the war seemed like it was set to continue for at least another year. The Japanese were fanatics. They had proven that they would literally fight to the last in Burma, China and the island hopping campaign throughout the Pacific so surely they would be even more committed when the final assault on the Japanese home islands began. Every single mile would be paid for in blood by the allies.

These thoughts may have played on some but as the formation of British planes made their way to Tokyo Sub-Lt Fred Hockley had another problem to contend with; the radio in his Seafire had malfunctioned. Nevertheless he decided to press on with his men even if he had to rely on hand signals to his number 2, Victor Lowden, who could then relay the instructions via his working radio.

Mitsubish A6M5

Mitsubish A6M5 (commons.wikimedia)

Ahead of the British planes at Atsurgi air base just outside Tokyo the men of the 302nd Kokutai, one of the few remaining elite units of the Imperial Japanese Navy, sat on alert with their Mitsubishi A6M5 Zero-sen fighters. With no real carrier force anymore the Imperial Japanese Navy pilots were now almost entirely land based save for a few floatplane units. Even in these dire times with their country having been savaged by allied air power these men still believed that victory was possible and that any allied invasion would be defeated by the sheer spirit and determination of the Japanese people to resist. To die for the Emperor and Japan was a glorious prospect. They couldn’t have known what had been happening in their country during the previous week since a US Boeing B-29 Superfortress named “Bockscar” had dropped a nuclear weapon on the city of Nagasaki, the second city to be ravished by such a weapon.

The Japanese leadership had been locked in intense debate over whether surrender was an option and if it was then in what form it would take. The thought of surrender disgusted many of the military leadership and the day before Hockley and his comrades took off from Indefatigable for that one last mission of the war an attempted coup by the Japanese Army was discovered and crushed. Of course the men of the 302nd Kokutai would never be told this for fear of encouraging further rebellion. For them the opportunity to fight for and if necessary die for the Emperor now presented itself as the alarm was raised. British planes were coming!

The Fairey Firefly was a development of the earlier Fulmar (maritimequest.com)

The Fairey Firefly was a development of the earlier Fulmar (maritimequest.com)

The attack force of Fireflies and Avengers Hockley was protecting had orders to attack an air base near Tokyo to soften up defences for follow on attacks. However as they approached Tokyo Bay the orders were changed as heavy cloud obscured the target and instead they were to attack their secondary target; a chemical weapons factory in Odaki Bay. On approach to the new target however the menacing shapes of the Japanese fighters appeared in the sky. The Fireflies and Avengers pressed on to their targets flying at 1000ft while the Seafires flying 3000ft above them broke formation and attacked. Despite being the section leader his lack of a working radio proved a severe hindrance and Hockley felt alone. As the British and Japanese fighters merged they became locked in the deadly art of air warfare.

Suddenly, Hockley’s plane sustained hits from an A6M5. Unable to call for help or organize a response he realized his situation was dire and that his aircraft was mortally wounded. He therefore pulled the canopy of his Seafire back, undid his belt and bailed out near the village of Higashimura where a surprised air raid warden took the unfortunate Tommy prisoner.

In the skies above however the last dogfight of World War II was raging. Victor Lowden, Hockley’s number 2, was now in command of the Seafires and took the formation in to battle. The Seafires and the Zero-sen fighters twisted and turned firing only for the briefest of seconds at one another as the enemy aircraft appeared and then disappeared in their sights. The A6M5 Zero-sen was a manoeuvrable opponent but it lacked the armoured protection of most allied fighters. Lowden organized his men to support him and Sub-Lt W. J. Williams as they attacked the enemy formation by keeping the other Japanese fighters away from them. In this way Lowden quickly downed one Zero-sen and then another. Both he and Williams then shared in another kill while around five Japanese aircraft had sustained damage to the point where they had to retreat from battle.

Japanese Zero goes down in flames

Japanese Zero goes down in flames

The battle raged on in this fashion for several more minutes. Not to want to be outdone by their compatriots from No.894 NAS the three pilots of No.887 NAS led by Sub-Lt Gerry Murphy got stuck in to the enemy. With five Japanese planes already shot down (some sources claim it was six by this point) Murphy and his men attacked two A6M5 Zero-sens. The first was taken down and Murphy got locked in to a deadly turning battle with the remaining fighter. With g-forces pinning him to his seat he managed to bring the nose of his Seafire III ahead of the A6M5 and squeezed the trigger sending 20mm shells into the Japanese aircraft which quickly became uncontrollable and went plummeting to the ground.

He couldn’t have known it but Sub-Lt Murphy had just scored the very last air to air victory of World War II.

The Fireflies and Avengers made their attack on the chemical weapons factory and the whole formation returned to the Indefatigable. The Japanese had lost eight aircraft while Hockley was the only British casualty. For the Supermarine Seafire and indeed the Fleet Air Arm as a whole things had come full circle. The Fleet Air Arm started the war underappreciated and underequipped having to struggle against better land opponents. Now at the very end of the war it had proven it was every bit as capable as any carrier or land based air force in the world.

Not long after the aircraft returned to the carrier the Japanese Emperor spoke to his people;

After pondering deeply the general trends of the world and the actual conditions obtaining in Our Empire today, We have decided to effect a settlement of the present situation by resorting to an extraordinary measure.

We have ordered Our Government to communicate to the Governments of the United States, Great Britain, China and the Soviet Union that Our Empire accepts the provisions of their Joint Declaration.

To strive for the common prosperity and happiness of all nations as well as the security and well-being of Our subjects is the solemn obligation which has been handed down by Our Imperial Ancestors and which lies close to Our heart.

Indeed, We declared war on America and Britain out of Our sincere desire to ensure Japan’s self-preservation and the stabilization of East Asia, it being far from Our thought either to infringe upon the sovereignty of other nations or to embark upon territorial aggrandizement.

But now the war has lasted for nearly four years. Despite the best that has been done by everyone—the gallant fighting of the military and naval forces, the diligence and assiduity of Our servants of the State, and the devoted service of Our one hundred million people—the war situation has developed not necessarily to Japan’s advantage, while the general trends of the world have all turned against her interest.

Moreover, the enemy has begun to employ a new and most cruel bomb, the power of which to do damage is, indeed, incalculable, taking the toll of many innocent lives. Should we continue to fight, not only would it result in an ultimate collapse and obliteration of the Japanese nation, but also it would lead to the total extinction of human civilization.

Such being the case, how are We to save the millions of Our subjects, or to atone Ourselves before the hallowed spirits of Our Imperial Ancestors? This is the reason why We have ordered the acceptance of the provisions of the Joint Declaration of the Powers….

The hardships and sufferings to which Our nation is to be subjected hereafter will be certainly great. We are keenly aware of the inmost feelings of all of you, Our subjects. However, it is according to the dictates of time and fate that We have resolved to pave the way for a grand peace for all the generations to come by enduring the unendurable and suffering what is unsufferable

Unfortunately this story has one final tragic twist. Sub-Lt Fred Hockley should have spent just a few hours as a prisoner of war before being told of the surrender order. However, having been turned over to a Colonel of the Imperial Japanese Army’s 426th Infantry Regiment Hockley found himself being marched in to the nearby woods later that night many hours after Hirohito’s speech. There out of the sight of prying eyes he was executed out of spite on the unauthorised orders of a Japanese Major. It was senseless waste of life but reflected the hatred the Japanese had for the people of the west particularly in the aftermath of the nuclear attacks (the fact he was British not American didn’t matter). Buried in a shallow grave, those responsible later feared what might happen if the body was discovered by the occupying allied armies and so they returned and in a final indignity Hockley’s body was exhumed and burned. Their efforts to hide their crime failed and two of the officers involved were hanged following their trial.

Sub-Lt Fred Hockley RNVR (Soham Grammarians)

Sub-Lt Fred Hockley RNVR (Soham Grammarians)

Since 1995, the 50th anniversary of the battle over Tokyo Bay and the end of the war itself the Daily Telegraph newspaper has had a memorial for Hockley placed in its pages as one of the last to die in the fighting during the most destructive conflict in history – World War II.

Six Royal Navy vessels that have vanished without trace

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

HMS SapphoBuilt 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 CondorHMS 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

HMS AtalantaLaunched 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

hqdefaultIf 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

HMS TerrorPerhaps 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.

Bombardment of Alexandria 1882

Bombardment_of_Alexandria

Up until the Second World War, Egypt had been one of the most important North African posts within the British Empire. It had gained a new importance with the opening of the French-financed Suez Canal on the 17th September 1869 which took off over 4,000 miles of the journey to India and Britain’s Far East possessions. Britain was initially against the opening of the canal for fear it may be used by France to challenge her regional superiority however it was a British warship, HMS Newport, that was the first ship through the canal.

Britain too had strong interests in Egypt and financed many projects that returned a profit for the treasury including the construction of an extensive railway system. At this time Egypt was under the leadership of the Khedives from the Muhammad Ali Dynasty. Seeing profit in working with the European powers the family cooperated with the British and French by authorizing such large scale projects such as the Suez Canal and the rail network as well as providing large numbers of slaves to work on them.

Tewfik Pasha

Tewfik Pasha & Ahmed ‘Urabi

In 1879 the throne passed to Tewfik Pasha and he continued the policy of cooperation but a growing nationalist movement was under way in his country that resented the influence the foreigners were having on Egypt. Leader of this movement was Ahmed ‘Urabi (sometimes known as Ahmad Arabi or Arabi Pasha), an officer in the Egyptian Army who led a mutiny against Tewfik’s rule. Tewfik tried to counter this uprising for fear of looking weak in front of his naturally nervous foreign supporters but the sides in Egypt were rather equally divided. Tewfik therefore agreed to reform his cabinet with a number of ‘Urabi’s supporters holding positions. This did little to curb ‘Urabi’s nationalist movement however and by 1882 he was the de facto head of the Egyptian government.

In June 1882 Urabi’s displeasure at foreign nationals took fruition as he organized a force to march on the port city of Alexandria where a large number of British and French were living. By this time Britain had purchased the Khedive’s share in the Suez Canal and was an equal partner to France in its operation. In what was labelled as anti-Christian rioting by the British press the nationalist supporters forced out British, French and any other non-Egyptian or non-Muslim from the city. Knowing the European powers were responding by sending warships to Alexandria, ‘Urabi then began fortifying the city in preparation for what seemed to be an inevitable confrontation.

The warships sent to Alexandria were of an Anglo-French force and their standing orders were to protect British and French citizens; orders which were open to interpretation with regards to execution. Leading the British fleet was Admiral Frederick Beauchamp Seymour aboard his flagship, HMS Invincible, who had held the post of Commander-in-Chief, Mediterranean Fleet since 1880. He had therefore kept abreast of events in Egypt and upon learning of the increasing fortifications at Alexandria believed that they would be used to fire on their warships the moment they entered harbour. He therefore issued an ultimatum on the 10th July 1882 to ‘Urabi’s forces demanding they withdraw from the fortifications or they would be bombarded.

HMS Invincible

HMS Invincible – Admiral Seymour’s Flagship

It was at this point that the united front Britain and France were portraying collapsed. Political unrest in France meant that the French Navy was hoping to avoid a fight in case it had to be recalled home and were furious that Seymour had taken it upon himself to issue the ultimatum. They informed him that if the British fully intended to commit to a bombardment that the French fleet would have no part in it and would retreat to Port Said until the exchange stopped. This left Seymour and his force of 16 warships to carry out the bombardment alone. When ‘Urabi learned of this he felt his position had been reinforced believing that either the British were bluffing or that his own forces could repel the ships of the British Mediterranean Fleet. Either way the ultimatum passed and the nationalist forces remained in place. An incensed Seymour, whose honour was now at stake and was still acting under orders that allowed him to do what he felt was necessary, signalled from Invincible for the bombardment to commence at 0700 on July 11th 1882.

From an historical point of view Seymour’s fleet was a fascinating one as it aptly displayed the changing nature of warship design and technology of the era. Gone were the magnificently crafted wooden ships-of-the-line with their immense sails and two decks of muzzle loaded cannon balls. On the surface Seymour’s ships certainly resembled those days but now they were clad in iron armour and had much improved weapons but perhaps even more significantly they were all now powered by a mix of traditional sail and the revolutionary steam power. At the time the Admiralty saw the advantages in steam such as speed and manoeuvrability but didn’t trust its reliability and disliked the limited range compared to sail. Therefore sailing rigs were retained for long distances (with the steam used when the wind was low or combat was expected) and as a back up should the steam engines fail which was surprisingly often in those early days. Some ships such as HMS Monarch also had the first large naval turrets for ocean going use. An interesting addition to the fleet although one which played little part in the bombardment was HMS Hecla, a high speed torpedo boat!

HMS Alexandra

HMS Alexandra

Upon the passing of the deadline, Seymour ordered HMS Alexandra to commence the first attack by shelling the fort at Ras-el-tin. The Alexandra was a central battery ironclad armed with two 11-inch and ten 10-inch guns. Alexandra closed in and fired on the fort which in turn retaliated and was followed with shelling by HMS Sultan and Superb. The obvious advantage enjoyed by a warship over a fort is that it can remain mobile and therefore provide a difficult target. However during the bombardment of Ras-el-tin it was found that the gun crews had difficulty in properly aiming at the fort with shells landing short, too far or on parts of the fort already hit. Therefore by 0940hrs the order was given to bring the ships to a halt and fire a planned-out artillery barrage at the fort. While this improved accuracy it also made the warships more vulnerable and Alexandra took several hits. It would not be until the arrival of HMS Inflexible that the fort’s guns were finally suppressed. It was not the best start.

Further along the coast, HMS Invincible and HMS Temeraire began their attack on the fortifications around the Mex Citadel. Temeraire fired salvoes of 10- and 11-inch ammunition from her rifled guns with a fair degree of accuracy. Invincible supported the attack but occasionally turned guns on the troublesome Ras-el-tin fort to support Alexandra. Meanwhile a small number of the main force fired from long ranges with mixed success. Then disaster struck as Temeraire hit a previously uncharted reef grounding her but fortunately not causing any significant damage to the hull. She was nevertheless a sitting duck to the shore batteries who sensed an opportunity.

HMS Condor

HMS Condor

The grounding was witnessed by HMS Condor, commanded by Lord Charles Bereford, who ordered his ship to steam to Termeraire’s assistance. HMS Condor was categorized as a composite gun vessel which is broadly equivalent to a modern day gunboat in that her size and armament was relatively light and more suited to security missions than bombarding Egyptian forts. Her armament comprised of one 7-inch muzzle loaded gun and two 64-pdr muzzle loaded guns. She displaced just 774 tons compared to Temeraire’s 8,500 tons but nevertheless the two crews persisted and together they pulled Termeraire off the reef and continued their attack on the forts.

With the bulk of the Royal Navy force firing at long ranges to distract or suppress the guns of the main fortifications, three ships – HMS Condor, HMS Monarch and HMS Penelope – were ordered to close in on the nearby forts at Mars-el-kanat and Fort Marabout. Firing from a much shorter range they produced more accurate results. At this point Admiral Seymour’s flagship, HMS Invincible, had strayed into range of the guns at Fort Marabout and sensing an opportunity the Egyptian gunners fired relentlessly at the large British battleship. HMS Condor decided to go to her flagship’s aid and steamed inland to offer an easier target while at the same time firing accurate shells at each of the fort’s gun emplacements. Having saved a second ship and successfully suppressing the gun emplacements at Fort Marabout, Seymour signalled from Invincible “Well done Condor.”

Bombardment of AlexandriaIt was now early afternoon and both sides were trying to take stock of the situation. The forts at Ras-el-tin, the Mex Citadel, Mars-el-kanat and Fort Marabout had all taken a heavy pounding and were either destroyed or their occupiers had retreated. At 1330hrs HMS Superb was shelling a fifth fort, Fort Adda, when a direct hit on stacked ammunition caused an immense explosion that put the entire fort out of action. In the chaos of the fighting the Egyptians had observed several British ships such as the Alexandra receive hits and somehow came to the conclusion that three British warships had been sunk. While the Royal Navy had taken hits from defensive batteries the entire force was still operational.

The British did have a problem however; they had expended a large quantity of their ammunition. Having suppressed the main fortifications he had intended to, Seymour elected to pull his ships back to the open sea and assess the overall condition of his fleet. Despite some casualties the fleet had come out of the action relatively intact. With the fires from the damaged or destroyed forts still burning Seymour decided to wait until the next day to launch a reconnaissance operation to asses the results of the bombardment.

HMS Temeraire

HMS Temeraire

HMS Temeraire was chosen to lead the reconnaissance mission and in the early hours of the morning of the 12th July 1882 the ship returned to the waters off Alexandria. Her lookouts observed that some of the defences were being rebuilt by ‘Uradi’s men and upon reporting this back to Seymour he ordered that Tameraire and Inflexible should return and bombard them again. At 1030hrs the two ships fired on the rebuilt defences. ‘Urabi’s men were not as determined to resist for a second day and within twenty minutes flags of truce appeared on the shore and the bombardment stopped.

An Egyptian boat carrying representatives of ‘Urabi’s government sailed out to the British fleet to begin negotiations. These negotiations failed miserably as neither side were willing to submit. Therefore in late afternoon the bombardment resumed however the spirited defence the British had encountered the day before had gone and many of the forts, against ‘Urabi’s wishes, flew the white flag and were therefore not attacked. As late afternoon gave way to night large numbers of ‘Urabi’s men abandoned their posts believing a British invasion was imminent. With no law in place in Alexandria they went on an orgy of looting and arson.

Seymour had a contingent of Royal Marines at his command but refused to land them until the situation on shore had been established. It would not be until two days later, the 14th July 1882, that he finally took his ships inland and landed his troops. Instead of fighting ‘Urabi’s men the Royal Marines found themselves fighting off bands of looters. Nevertheless Seymour had achieved his goal of securing Alexandria.

There was much criticism of Seymour’s actions after the event. Some were furious that he took it upon himself to effectively make up Britain’s foreign policy, that of armed intervention, regarding Egypt on his own. Some also accused him of exaggerating the strength and threat the fortifications presented to British interests in the region. Others however have argued in his defence stating that even if he had attempted a more diplomatic approach it would only have delayed the inevitable confrontation by which time ‘Urabi’s men would have been even stronger. Either way the event cost Seymour’s force ten men dead and 27 wounded. The number of Egyptians killed in the bombardment and in the chaos of the following two days before Royal Marines restored order is thought to be much higher.

If a hero was to emerge from the whole affair then the title has to go to Lord Charles Bereford, captain of HMS Condor who rescued the grounded Temeraire and then came to the defence of the flagship Invincible. Proof that even in the Victorian era it was not always the biggest ships that had the glory. Despite resistance from the British government under William Gladstone, British troops were eventually landed in Egypt and ‘Urabi’s revolt was crushed once and for all. Tewfik Pasha was restored as head of the Egyptian government and Egypt became a British protectorate. Among the officers of the Army embarked upon this mission was a brash young Lieutenant named Winston Spencer Churchill.