Archives For UK Shipwrecks

Cleopatra’s Needle

October 14, 2014 — Leave a comment

London Needle

For nearly a century and a half, an Egyptian obelisk has graced the Victoria Embankment along the Thames River in London. Flanked by a pair of sphinxes, the obelisk was gifted to the United Kingdom by Muhammad Ali, the ruler of Egypt and Sudan, in 1819 in honor of two British victories in Egypt including Admiral Nelson’s victory at the Battle of the Nile. While the gift was a magnanimous one, the cost of transporting it to the UK proved prohibitive and the obelisk lingered in Egypt until 1877 when £10,000 was donated by a philanthropist to ship the monument to London.

Carefully ensconced in an enormous iron cylinder outfitted with a rudder, deckhouse and dubbed Cleopatra, the 69 foot, 224 ton red granite obelisk began its long journey to London from Egypt. Tragedy struck the needle and its tow vessel Olga on October 14, 1877 when a storm struck in the Bay of Biscay. As the towed cylinder began to buck and roll amidst the storm’s swells, six crew were dispatched from the Olga to steady the Cleopatra. Sadly, their boat capsized and the men were all lost. The Olga was able to rescue the six men aboard the Cleopatra and the needle was abandoned to the vagaries of the storm in a sinking state.

Four days later the Cleopatra was discovered adrift by Spanish trawlers and was salvaged by the steamer Fitzmaurice out of Glasgow. After paying off the salvage claim, the Cleopatra finally arrived in the UK on January 21, 1878 after a harrowing and deadly journey. The needle was erected on September 12, 1878 and has attracted tourists and Londoners alike ever since.

London Needle

Cleopatra’s Needle Arrives

Winston Churchill

Richard Freeman’s latest publication, ‘Unsinkable’, is a critical look at Winston Churchill’s role in the Great War. Freeman advances the position that Churchill is given less credit than he deserves for his role in Great Britain’s victory in World War One. The book follows Churchill from his initial days in the Admiralty to his time in Flanders as an infantry officer to his ultimate role as Minister of Munitions at the end of the war. Freeman makes a very compelling case based upon historical evidence and documents not declassified until after the war that Churchill was made the scapegoat for the Gallipoli disaster and that he was the victim of political infighting and poor political choices on his own part.

The book’s 240 pages fly by as Freeman, in writing ‘Unsinkable’, has delivered a highly readable book, even for those not necessarily interested in the inner workings of British politics during World War One. Overall, Freeman should be credited with producing an excellent addition to the vast array of literature about that indefatigable lion of late 19th and early 20th century British life, Winston Churchill.

CC Image Courtesy of UK MOD on Flickr

CC Image Courtesy of UK MOD on Flickr

Yesterday the Royal Navy decommissioned its last Invincible class aircraft/helicopter carrier, HMS Illustrious, better known to her crew as “Lusty“. Laid down in 1976, Illustrious was the second of the three Invincible class carriers with her sister ships being HMS Invincible and HMS Ark Royal. While the ship was being fitted out, the Argentinians invaded the Falkland Islands and the carrier was rushed into service – so rushed in fact that she was commissioned at sea on June 20, 1982 as she sailed to the relief of the occupied Falklands. The Falklands War also changed the role the Invincible class carriers were originally conceived to fulfill. Instead of operating in a primarily ASW role, the Falklands forced the Royal Navy to adapt the carriers to embark a larger fixed-air complement in order to provide air cover for both land and sea operations.

Illustrious served not only in the Falklands, but also supported British and Coalition forces in Bosnia, Sierra Leone and Afghanistan. The ship will avoid the fate of being scrapped like her sisters. Plans are being made for preservation in some form as a tourist attraction, museum, or floating hotel/conference center much like the plans in consideration for the SS United States. While the Royal Navy’s floating fixed wing capability was scrapped several years ago with the retirement of its Harrier fleet, the decommissioning of the Illustrious truly ends, for now, the Royal Navy’s ability to field a floating fixed wing airstrip. Until the commissioning of the HMS Queen Elizabeth in 2017, the Royal Navy must rely on its sole aircraft carrier HMS Ocean for air support of both maritime and land operations.

New Zealand Shipwreck

On May 4, 1866, the American built barque General Grant departed Melbourne, Australia for London with 58 passengers and 25 crew. Among the passengers were several miners returning home and the cargo manifest listed an official load of 2,576 ounces of gold. Nine days out of Melbourne, the General Grant came upon the Auckland Islands, however, weather conditions prevented the ship’s crew from rounding the islands. Late in the evening, the ship collided with the island’s cliffs and drifted into a large cave where it eventually sank from the main mast being driven through the ship’s bottom from being tossed into the roof of the cave.

Despite the ship’s being beaten against the roof of the cave by a rising tide, the passengers and crew chose to spend a perilous night aboard the vessel and try to escape in the morning. Only fifteen souls of the 83 aboard were able to leave the vessel safely and they soon found themselves on the aptly named Disappointment Island before rowing on to Port Ross. For the next nine months the survivors watched and waited for a passing ship to rescue them, but none came. Exasperated, four of the fifteen attempted to sail for New Zealand but were never heard from again after leaving Port Ross on January 22, 1867. Nearly eight months later the survivors were finally rescued by the brig Amherst.

The General Grant was not done taking lives, though, as 29 salvors died in their vain attempts to locate the ship and its cargo of gold. To this day the ship remains undiscovered with her $3,000,000+ gold cargo lying somewhere at the bottom of a treacherous cave on Auckland Island.

ship bombingThe late 19th century and early 20th century were the heyday of luxury trans-Atlantic steamship travel. Among the numerous liners plying the waters between New York City and Liverpool was the RMS Umbria, a Cunard luxury liner. Launched in 1884 the Umbria and her sister ship Etruria were named for regions of Italy and reflected the Victorian obsession with all things Egyptian, Greek or Roman. The two vessels were the last liners built for the Cunard line with auxiliary masts that could be rigged for sailing. Additionally, they were designed for easy conversion to armed merchant cruisers in the event of war. Both Umbria and Etruria held the westbound Blue Riband at points in their careers for being the fastest vessels on the Europe to New York journey.

Arguably the most intriguing anecdote in the Umbria‘s career was her being the target of a bomb plot by the Italian Mafia. On May 9, 1903, a letter was delivered to the New York police claiming a bomb had been placed aboard the Umbria. Incidentally, the chivalrous bombers claimed they had originally planned to target the RMS Oceanic but changed targets because Oceanic contained too many women and children. The police acted swiftly to prevent Umbria from sailing and a search of the ship revealed a 3×2 foot box filled with 100lbs. of dynamite and a fuse. The bomb was defused and police traced it back to the Mafia Society in Chicago. The ship sailed for Liverpool after only a short delay.

By the time of her scrapping in 1910, the Umbria had served the Empire twice as a troop ferry and auxiliary warship, been disabled in the North Atlantic, grounded herself on the wreck of a coal barge and even sunk another steam ship in a collision.

Amethyst Incident

Sunset on the Yangtze River
CC Image Courtesy of Dan Nelson on Flickr

On April 20, 1949, the Royal Navy frigate HMS Amethyst was cruising up China’s mighty Yangtze River as hundreds of western gunboats had done over the previous century. The Amethyst had been ordered to relieve HMS Consort which was guarding the British Embassy and British interests at the Chinese Nationalist capital of Nanjing. Around 9:30am, without warning, a People’s Liberation Army artillery battery opened fire on the vessel. The PLA battery rained a deadly barrage of shells on the ship, quickly disabling her and mortally wounding her captain, Lieutenant Commander Bernard Skinner. The vessel quickly found herself aground and unable to return fire due to the geometry of her grounding and damage sustained in the initial barrage to her fire control mechanisms. Non-essential personnel were ordered to evacuate the frigate, but the PLA began targeting the small boats with artillery and snipers. By the time the firing ceased at 11am, 22 Royal Navy sailors and officers lay dead with another 31 wounded.

HMS Consort arrived at 11am to lend her support and quickly suppressed the PLA fire. Unable to take the Amethyst in tow, the Consort concentrated on lashing out at the gathering horde of PLA soldiers. Another ten sailors were killed and three wounded during the Consort’s efforts. Not until later that night was Amethyst refloated, however, she was unable to escape and thus began a tense ten week siege during which the PLA refused to allow supplies to reach the vessel.

Finally, on the night of July 30th, the Amethyst slipped her chains and snuck down the Yangtze behind a passenger ship. Sadly the PLA, in their efforts to sink the Amethyst, sank the passenger ship with heavy civilian casualties. After a short sail of two days under escort from another Royal Navy vessel, the Amethyst arrived in the British colony of Hong Kong. The Amethyst had been trapped 101 days and upon her arrival famously signaled “Have rejoined the Fleet south of Woo Sung. No damage or casualties. God Save the King.”

For those to whom the British Empire represented, despite its flaws, a force for the rule of law and economic development, the Amethyst Incident represented the beginning of the sunset on Her Majesty’s Government’s influence in China. For those who viewed the expulsion of foreigners as the beginning of a great socialist experiment, the incident instilled pride which, unless one were a party elite, was crushed in the years following “Liberation” as Frank Dikotter has so eloquently elucidated in his latest book The Tragedy of Liberation.

MV Dara

April 8, 2014 — Leave a comment

terrorist bomb

Before the advent of cheap air transportation to and from the Middle East, medium size liners such as the M/V Dara transported both cargo and passengers to and from Europe, India and the Middle East. The Dara, soon to become like another British India Steam Navigation vessel, specialized in moving ex-pat workers between worksites in the Middle East and Bombay. During a port stop in Dubai on April 7, 1961, a brisk storm beset the port forcing the Dara to stand out to sea in the middle of unloading. In doing so, the ship carried with her passengers and non-passengers alike.

Early the next morning, around 4:40 am an explosion ripped through the bowels of the ship sparking a serious fire that swept through the ship. Panic ensued among those aboard and 238 passengers, crew and shore staff died in the mad scramble to get aboard lifeboats. Vessels from multiple navies along with a civilian salvage tug responded to the explosion and the vessel remained afloat for some time. While under tow, though, the ship slipped beneath the waves in only 100 feet of water. Thus the Dara has become a semi-popular wrecksite as its topmost wreckage is only a few feet below the waves.

Although an exact reason for the explosion has never been ascertained, it is widely believed Omani rebels slipped an anti-tank mine aboard the vessel. Not only was this a common bomb technique among the Omani rebels who had been driven out by the British in 1959, but also Royal Navy divers found evidence of an anti-tank device aboard the wreck. Despite this evidence, it has never been conclusively been proven who was responsible for the deadly attack.