The Amphion Tragedy

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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.

 

 

 

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Five Of The Most Significant Submarine Attacks In History

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The development of the submarine changed the very nature of naval warfare forever. Suddenly, the huge fleets of yesteryear found their supremacy threatened by an unseen force and for a long time they were largely defenceless to the new weapon. However, it took a certain type of courage to volunteer for submarine duties especially in the early days when their vessels were often as dangerous to their crews as to the enemy. As a result of this courage submarine commanders and their crews were often exceptionally daring in their efforts to fight the enemy.

Here are five of the most significant submarine attacks in history.


 

  1. The First Ever Submarine Attack in History

Submarine Turtle Eagle 1776Largely thought of as a 20th century invention, primitive submersibles have actually been around since the 17th century. On September 7th 1776 the submarine Turtle designed by American inventor David Bushnell was given over to the American patriot cause for use against the British in the American Revolution. Piloted by Ezra Lee, the submarine approached the British 64-gun warship HMS Eagle and attempted to plant a bomb on it. However, he was unable to secure it to his target’s hull and it fell off the British ship before detonating which saved the Eagle from destruction. Although a failure, Lee’s mission is considered the first submarine attack in history.


 

  1. The Cressy Catastrophe

HMS CresseyUpon the outbreak of World War I, Britain’s Royal Navy had the most powerful surface fleet in the world and the British people were confident that they were safe on their island nation as a result. That confidence was shattered on September 22nd 1914 when German U-Boat U-9 attacked a formation of three Cressy-class heavy cruisers – Aboukir, Cressy and Hogue.

When the first ship, the Aboukir, was hit the crews of the other two cruisers believed that the explosion was caused by an accident onboard and went to assist them. Seizing the opportunity, U-9 attacked the Hogue and sank it. The remaining British ship, Cressy, attacked U-9 before returning to rescuing survivors of the other two ships. U-9 attacked again and sank Cressy. In all 1,450 British sailors were killed in what was at that time an unprecedented victory for a submarine.

For more on this read The Cressy Catastrophe


 

  1. The Submarine That Sent A Nation On The Path To War

RMS LusitaniaOn May 7th 1915 the British liner Lusitania was travelling south of Ireland on a route from New York to Liverpool when it was spotted by the German U-Boat, U20, which was taking part in an attempt to blockade Britain’s sea lanes. At the time the US was neutral in the First World War but despite being warned by the Germans that they reserved the right to attack any ship heading for British ports a large number of Americans were aboard believing that the Germans would never target an ocean liner with 2,000 people on it.

They were wrong.

Shortly after 2pm, U20 fired on the ship and in the resulting explosion and sinking, 1,198 people were killed including 128 Americans. The attack outraged the American people who were at that time largely oblivious to the war in Europe and pushed America closer to the Allies before they eventually declared war on Germany in 1917.


 

  1. Submarine vs. Submarine

HMS VenturerContrary to the myth perpetuated by Hollywood movies, submarines sinking other submarines has only happened in exceptionally rare cases. In all but one of these incidents the target submarine was on the surface when it was attacked. The exception occurred on February 9th 1945 when the British submarine, HMS Venturer, detected the German U-Boat U-864 on the surface with engine trouble. The U-Boat was actually on a highly secretive mission to deliver two scientists and several key jet engine components to Japan, Germany’s ally, for use in their own jet fighter program.

Realising he had been spotted by a British submarine the captain of U-864 dived to escape. The captain of Venturer, 25-year old Lieutenant Jimmy Launders, attempted to match the U-Boat’s dive and by estimating the approximate position of the German vessel, fired a spread of six torpedoes in to its vicinity. One of the torpedoes successfully struck the U-Boat destroying it and its precious cargo. It remains the only time in history where one submarine has deliberately sunk another in combat while both were submerged.

For more on this read The Only Underwater Submarine-to-Submarine Kill in History


 

  1. The MV Wilhelm Gustloff

MV Wilhelm GustloffFrom the outbreak of World War II Germany’s navy, the Kriegsmarine, exercised a policy of unrestricted U-Boat warfare against the Allies. This in turn dictated a similar policy amongst the Allied navies and the oceans became a brutal killing ground as a result. In January 1945 this policy was about to reach its bloody climax and it would actually be the Germans who would be on the receiving end. The MV Wilhelm Gustloff was a cruise liner requisitioned by the Kriegsmarine for service as a hospital ship when the war broke out. When it became clear the vessel could no longer safely go to sea it was held in port at Gdynia in German-occupied Poland where it was painted in naval grey and used as an accommodation ship for trainee U-Boat crews.

By the start of 1945 the Soviet Red Army was pursuing the retreating German Army across Eastern Europe and so the ship was pressed back in to service to evacuate thousands of German troops, Gestapo officers, officials and civilians who had made a life in occupied Poland. On January 30th 1945, the ship along with another liner, the Hansa, and a torpedo boat made their breakout attempting to reach Germany through the Baltic. Official records show that over 6,000 people were onboard but the actual number was closer to 11,000 as a large number of civilians desperately crammed aboard and in the chaos of the boarding the crew simply gave up counting.

Shortly after leaving port the Hansa had to turn back because of mechanical problems but the Wilhelm Gustloff continued on before it was discovered by the Soviet Navy’s S-13 submarine. The S-13 torpedoed the overloaded vessel which quickly sank taking around 9,500 people with it of which nearly 5,000 were children.

It remains the biggest loss of life at sea in a single incident.

 

The Cressey Catastrophe

HMS Cressey

HMS Cressey

For over two thousand years the British Isles had been subject to invasion be it from legions of Roman soldiers, Nordic Vikings or the Spanish Armada. It was therefore embedded on the British psyche that a strong navy was essential for the island nation to survive. After the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 where the Royal Navy defeated the combined French and Spanish fleets Britain was the dominant naval power in the world and for the first time in its history the island nation was safe. The situation remained largely unchanged for over a hundred years and so entire generations grew up believing that thanks to the Royal Navy Britain was impervious to invasion even as the German leader, Kaiser Wilhelm II, began building his own fleet to challenge it.

Cressey-class HMS Aboukir

Cressey-class HMS Aboukir

Among the home fleet were a force of cruisers known as the Cressey-class. Built between 1899 and 1901 the Cressey-class cruisers displaced 12,000 tons and were well armoured for their day with some sections having as much as 152mm of steel protecting it. They were powered by two 4-cylinder triple expansion steam engines driving two shafts that propelled them to a speed of 21 knots. Main armament was two 9.2inch Mark X which could fire a 380lb shell out to a range of 29,000 yards and these were backed up by 12 6-inch and 12 12-pounder guns. Each Cressey-class ship had a crew complement of up to 760.

Such was the rapid pace of the arms race between Britain and Germany in the years leading up to the First World War that these ships were soon declared obsolete in the face of new equivalent German cruisers and so became part of the Royal Navy Reserve going to sea occasionally for training purposes. The outbreak of war saw the activation of the Royal Navy Reserve and the Cresseys formed the 7th Cruiser Squadron assigned to patrol the North Sea entrance to the English Channel. The inexperience of the reservist crews and the fact the Cresseys were slower than their German counterparts sparked widescale criticism of their use in this way from analysts and the more realistic members of the Admiralty. However the Royal Navy at large was gearing up for its Second Battle of Trafalgar in which the premier ships of both sides would meet in honourable combat for control of the sea. The Cresseys therefore had to perform the more mundane patrol taskings and there were those who believed that when the Germans learned of these ships it would actually encourage an attack. The 7th Cruiser Squadron therefore earned the unflattering nickname of the Live Bait Squadron.

HMS Euryalus

HMS Euryalus – Rear Admiral Christian’s flagship

In mid-September 1914 four of the Cresseys (Aboukir, Cressey, Euryalis and Hogue) and a variety of supporting ships were at sea under the command of Rear-Admiral Arthur Christian aboard Euryalus. Severe weather was hampering their progress and while this was of little concern to ships the size of the Cresseys it was more worrying for the relatively tiny destroyers. On the 17th September Christian decided that the weather was too bad for them to remain at sea and ordered them to return to port leaving the four Cresseys to continue the patrol. The weather remained poor and the ships had to work hard to keep at sea. Then on the 20th September Christian was given some unfortunate news from his flagship’s engineering crews. HMS Euryalus had expended a considerable amount of its fuel and needed to return to port soon. Frustrated by this development he considered transferring his flag to one of the other cruisers however the weather was proving so fierce that it was almost impossible to launch a sea boat and therefore he signalled to Captain J. Drummond aboard HMS Aboukir that he was to assume command of the squadron while Euryalus returned to port. The three remaining Cresseys continued their war patrol alone.

On the morning of September 22nd 1914 the weather began to settle and after days of rolling and pitching the three crews looked forward to a welcome respite as they patrolled an area known as the Broad Fourteens located around 18 miles from the Dutch coast (then a neutral country in the fighting). Unknown to them however another crew nearby were pleased to have a rest from the storm – the crew of German submarine U-9 under the command of Kapitänleutnant Otto Weddigen. U-9 had attempted an attack on British transports a few days earlier but the storm had forced Weddigen to call off the operation and now he and his men were returning to their home port.

U-9

U-9

At 06:00 U-9 had surfaced to replenish its batteries when lookouts spotted the shape of the three Cresseys in the distance travelling at a rather conservative 10 knots. Sensing an opportunity, Weddigen ordered U-9 to submerge and he plotted an attack. At 06:20 he fired a single torpedo at the lead cruiser, Aboukir, striking the British ship on the starboard side. The resulting explosion tore a hole big enough to flood the engine room and Aboukir ground to a shuddering halt before beginning to list to starboard. Drummond was overwhelmed. He had no idea what had caused the explosion and suspected they had blundered in to a minefield. Despite counter flooding the ship continued to list and it became obvious that the Aboukir was lost. Hogue and Cressey were therefore signalled to assist in recovering the Aboukir’s crew.

Weddigen couldn’t believe his luck!

HMS Hogue

HMS Hogue

After his initial attack Weddigen had surfaced once more and observed the two other ships going to the aid of their comrade. After 25 minutes he saw Aboukir finally slip below the surface taking 527 men with her and both Hogue and Cressey were launching boats to rescue the men in the water. Weddigen decided to take full advantage of the situation and fired a pair of torpedoes at the nearest ship, Hogue. The firing of the torpedoes raised the forward hull of the submarine out of the water and lookouts aboard Hogue spotted her. The British, finally realising they were under submarine attack, began firing on the submarine but it was too late and at 07:05 the torpedoes struck Hogue. The damage inflicted was even greater than that upon Aboukir and just 10 minutes later she sank beneath the surface.

Horrified at what was happening, HMS Cressey went after U-9 looking for revenge firing a salvo of gunfire in the submarine’s direction. Going to full power Cressey then attempted to ram U-9 but failed. Weddigen responded by firing his two aft torpedoes at the ship one of which missed but the other struck the British vessel although the damage was not fatal. Seeing this Weddigen turned U-9 around and he fired his last two bow torpedoes at the cruiser. The torpedoes impacted on the Cressey’s starboard side. Heavy flooding caused the ship to turn turtle and she remained upside down for nearly an hour before slipping beneath the waves thus closing this tragic chapter of the Royal Navy’s history. In all 1459 men were killed while 837 were rescued by British and Dutch ships.

Back home, the British press were furious. Having saturated the British public with the belief that the Royal Navy was invincible the loss of the three cruisers in such spectacular fashion shook the population to its core and there were calls for someone to answer for the tragedy.

There were several factors that attributed to loss.

  1. A large portion of the blame was attributed to Rear Admiral Christian in that he had not made clear to Drummond when he handed over command of the squadron just how much much authority he had. On the morning of the attack the weather had calmed but Drummond did not know if he had authority to order the destroyers to sea and provide a defensive screen for the cruisers against submarines.
  2. The British completely failed to recognise the threat posed by the German U-boats. The first few months of the war had been disastrous for Germany’s submarine force and this lead many in the Royal Navy to believe that they were a null threat. A damning fact emerged after the incident that the three cruisers were sailing in a straight line at the time of the initial attack on Aboukir despite standing orders that all large warships must patrol in a zig-zag pattern to make them more difficult targets for torpedo attack.
  3. Inexperience of the three reserve crews played a significant part in the incident primarily over what happened immediately after the first torpedo struck Aboukir. It was not until U-9 was sighted that anyone aboard the three ships considered the possibility of a submarine attack. Therefore no measures were taken that could have saved Hogue and Cressey.
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Propaganda postcard of the incident with Weddigen’s portrait in top left corner

Weddigen and his crew returned to Germany as heroes; the entire crew were awarded the prestigious Iron Cross medal for the action. The British propaganda machine made much of the fact that Hogue and Cressey were attacked rescuing survivors from Aboukir but in the eyes of his people he remained a hero until two years later while in command of another U-boat, U-29, he was killed when his vessel was rammed by the legendary British battleship HMS Dreadnought.

While the whole incident was a tragedy for the Royal Navy it did demonstrate the awesome power of the submarine and this changed the face of naval warfare forever.