Marwick Head on a quiet evening. In a force 9 gale it is a death-trap.

On 5 June 1916, at 7.45 pm GMT, an urgent telegraph was sent from Birsay Post Office to Kirkwall and Stromness. It read ‘Battle cruiser seems in distress between Marwick Head and the Brough of Birsay.’ Twenty minutes later the words ‘vessel down’ followed. [1] The cruiser was about a mile and a half from shore in tempestuous swells but clearly visible to the naval watching-post on land. Marwick Head is a jagged coastal fortress of cliffs and unwelcoming rocks. If there is such a place as the perfect ambush point for a ship such that the chances of survival are minimal, then it’s Marwick Head. The escort vessels, having failed to keep pace with the faster cruiser in such awful weather, had been ordered back to Scapa Flow. [2] There were witnesses. Joe Angus, a gunner in the Orkney Territorial Forces shore patrol [3] saw a great cloud of smoke and flame bursting up behind the bridge of the Hampshire, and it was he who set off the alarm. [4] Having been alerted, Corporal Drever, who manned the naval watching post, raced to the post office. [5] What followed beggars belief. If at the end of this blog you still consider what happened that evening as a mere catalogue of misunderstanding and error, then the official explanation will suffice. If not, you will be forced to conclude that dark forces were at work. Examine the time-scale:

5 June, 1916, 7.45 [GMT] pm [6]

An artist's impression of the sinking of HMS Hampshire in June 1916.

The Hampshire had been set on a course North, thirty degrees East. [7] It struck a mine which exploded just behind the bridge. [8] but did not sink immediately. In the ensuing mayhem only twelve out of around seven hundred men [9] survived both the floundering ship and the wrath of the angry North Sea gale. Of these, nine survivors specifically reported that a single explosion ripped the ship apart. William Bennet, officer on watch in the engine room, thought there were two or even three. They had to overcome the poisonous smoke and suffocating fumes to reach the deck. Estimates of the time between explosion and sinking, ranged from ten to twenty minutes. Confusion added to the howling wind and booming seas. Lifeboats could not be launched because the ship’s power had been lost. Boats cut free were dashed to pieces in the cold, debilitating waters. Men with lifebelts jumped in desperation. Only the Carley safety floats offered any chance of survival. [10]

5 June, 1916, 8.00 [GMT] pm onwards

Stoker Walter Farnden was one of an estimated forty men who clung to No. 3 raft with its cork-reinforced edges and rope handles. One by one they disappeared into the deep, frozen, exhausted unable to steer towards anyone still holding onto life amongst the debris. Stoker Farnden later described the torture he and his comrades endured: ‘An hour passed, two hours, and nearer and nearer to land the storm hurled us. Men were still dying in the agony of it all until there were but four of us alive.’ [11] Hundreds of men died in the wild seas because no-one was on hand to help. This human tragedy unfolded one and a half miles from the coast, witnessed and reported to the authorities at Scapa Flow within minutes, yet these poor men were left to die; abandoned outside the largest natural anchorage in the Empire. Why?

At the moment when possibly hundreds of men might have been rescued by a prompt response to the emergency call, the navy failed its own. Later a pathetic excuse was offered blaming the initial telegram for inaccurate detail. That ceased to have any relevance when the 8.20 message read ‘Vessel down.’ By 8.35 a third despairing message read: ‘Four funnel cruiser sunk 20 minutes ago. No assistance arrived yet. Send ships to pick up bodies.’ Men had been in the water for almost an hour, but still the Admiralty dithered.

Vice-Admiral Brock at the Longhope station on Orkney was informed of the 8.20 message that a vessel was down. Despite all that he knew, Brock did not immediately order out a rescue flotilla. Time was wasted confirming the telegrams from Birsay. Brock had been one of the guests at the special lunch hosted in Kitchener’s honour by Admiral Jellicoe that day. Brock knew of the late change to the Hampshire’s course. He knew about Kitchener’s mission to Russia. His failure to take immediate action remains incomprehensible. There was only one warship on that exclusive route. He must have known that the stricken ship was HMS Hampshire. [12] Of course he knew. His delay undoubtedly cost the lives of many dozens of potential survivors. Had Kitchener been in the water, he too would have been lost.

Rear Admiral Osmond Brock ended his career as Admiral of the Fleet. [13]

Survivors of HMS Hampshire, pictured by the Daily Mail

Orcadians who witnessed the tragedy could see that there were survivors amongst the bloated bodies but the seas were a natural bulwark between the desperate sailors and safety. Unless there were secret orders in place, what followed remains a tale of incompetence, panic and bewilderment on a scale that fails to make any sense. At every point the reader must remember that the sinking took place just one and a half miles from the Orkney coast – an area bristling with naval activity- the home of the Grand Fleet itself.

In Stromness, news of the cruiser’s loss was quickly relayed to the Royal National Lifeboat Institute whose secretary G L Thomson immediately rushed to alert the naval authorities and launch the life boat. He was stunned when told not to even try to do so. He demanded to speak with the senior officer only to be told that it was ‘none of his bloody business’, and warned very clearly and very specifically that he would be charged with mutiny if he attempted to launch the life boat. Matters got so heated that he and his crew were threatened with being put into custody. [14] Lifeboats exist to assist those in peril on the seas. Their purpose is to save lives. Their history around the coasts of Britain is of great self-sacrifice and valour. That the navy should order the grounding of a lifeboat makes no sense. Had the Admiralty ordained that there should be no survivors?

In Birsay, the few locals who knew about the disaster wanted to help, but in some cases ‘were forcibly prevented [from trying to get to survivors] under dire threats’ and even ordered to stay away from the shore or they would be fired on. The local people were certain that had they been allowed to take immediate action, fifty more lives could have been saved. [15] Ponder that awful fact. Local people could not fathom the inaction, the secrecy and the lack of tangible assistance for those despairing souls on the water.

5 June, 1916, 9.45 [GMT] pm. to midnight.

It took over two hours for a tug and two trawlers to make their way out of Stromness, and then at four destroyers followed. Observers on the island of Birsay recalled that none of these reached the scene of the disaster before midnight. At around 1pm, one of the Carley rafts washed up on the rocks of a small creek half a mile north of Skaill Bay. It carried around 40 men when it left the stricken Hampshire, picked up another 30 from the chilling seas, but only 6 men had survived the debilitating exposure when it smashed into the rocky cliffs. Fifteen minutes later a second life raft reached the shore just north of the first with four living men amongst the 40 – 50 bodies. Can you imagine their physical and mental exhaustion? And none was yet safe. They faced the black cliffs with no-one in sight to offer assistance, throw down ropes or guide their hands as they climbed blindly upwards. One or two men reached a farm house, exhausted and barely alive.

6 June 1916, 10.30am [GMT]

Initially, the authorities were unaware of survivors, and the following official statement was issued to the press at 1.40 pm. on 6 June;

Aberdeen Evening Express reporting the official Admiralty statement about the Hampshire's fate.

‘The Secretary of the Admiralty has received the following telegram from the Admiral Commander in Chief of the Grand Fleet [Jellicoe] at 10.30 am this morning:

I have to report with deep regret that HMS Hampshire (Capt. Robert J Savill, R.N.) with Lord Kitchener and staff on board was sunk last night about8 pm. to the west of the Orkneys, either by mine or torpedo. Four boats were seen by observer on shore to leave the ship. The wind was N.N.W. and heavy seas were running. Patrol boats and destroyers at once proceeded to the spot and a party was sent along the coast to search but only some bodies and a capsized boat have been found up to present. As the whole shore has been searched, I fear there is little hope of there being any survivors. No report has yet been received from the search party on shore. The Hampshire was on her way to Russia.’ [16]

The cover-up had begun. The Empire had been informed that ‘there is little hope of survivors’ and the instant histories, like War Illustrated bluntly stated that ‘Lord Kitchener … on board HMS Hampshire, had been drowned together with his staff and the whole complement of that cruiser.’ [17] The Times carried news from a special correspondent which inferred immediate assistance was sent. ‘vessels which were instantly summoned to make a search found no trace of the sunken warship, or even, for a time, of any floating bodies.’ [18] The first announcements were erroneous. Incredibly, there were survivors. However, no vessels had instantly been summoned. Rear Admiral Brock had seen to that. That was possibly the greatest lie of all.

The Aberdeen trawler Effort passed the spot where the Hampshire sank two hours after the disaster. In the option of the crew, the sea was a not so rough as to prevent small boats being launched, but nothing was seen of the wreck. By that time the weather had moderated. Strangely the report from Aberdeen added that ‘the only craft observed was a Dutch vessel, which was steaming very closely.’ [19] Where did that come from? This mystery ship has never been identified.

Royal Naval Cemetary at Lyness where the bodies recovered from the sinking of the Hampshire are buried.

Over the next days local Orcadians reported seeing two lorry loads of bodies arriving at Stromness Pier, barely covered, the lifeless crew piled high in open view, some almost naked as they were shunted down onto a waiting tug and taken for burial at Lyness. [20]

Take a second, please to review the main points. HMS Hampshire was sighted from land after an explosion had ripped her apart. Such was the violence of the explosion that her electrical system failed catastrophically and no mayday signal went out. However, a telegram was sent almost immediately from a watch point on the island of Birsay to alert the authorities at Scapa Flow. According to explanations announced by the Admiralty, vessels were immediately sent to the Hampshire’s assistance, but despite gallant efforts, there were no survivors. Later it was discovered that a dozen men survived the mountainous waves and freezing seas.

We now know that no ships were sent to find survivors until hours later. The log books from HMS Unity and HMS Victor, the two destroyers originally sent back from escorting the Hampshire show that they put to sea again at 9.10pm [21] and took an hour and a half to reach the area of wreckage . [22] Critically, and some might say, criminally, Vice Admiral Brock, who knew every detail of the Hampshire’s course, chose not to take immediate action to send assistance.

This was not, however, how these events were explained in the Admiralty’s official explanation.

[1] Jane E Storey. The Arcadian, New Light On Hampshire Tragedy.
[2] Philip Magnus, Kitchener, Portrait of an Imperialist. p. 373.
[3] Trevor Royle, The Kitchener Enigma, p. 374.
[4] Joe Angus, Stromness, ‘World War One’, Orkney Public Library, Kirkwall, interview for Sound Archive by Eric Marwick.
[5] Jane E Storey. The Arcadian, New Light On Hampshire Tragedy.
[6] The timings used are at Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) which is used throughout the world. British Summer Time (BST) , or delight saving time, is one hour in advance of that, viz GMT+1.
[7] Royle, Kitchener Enigma, p. 372.
[8] Evidence of Petty Officer Samuel Sweeney. All of the following statements were sent by telephone from O.C.W.P. at on 6 June 1916.
[9] The precise number may never be known, Royle puts it at 655 (p. 375). Orkney Heritage Society put the number at 737 to include men killed in the loss of the Laurel Crown.
[10] The Carley float was formed from a length of copper or steel tubing surrounded by a buoyant mass of cork. The American produced raft was rigid and could remain buoyant, floating equally well with either side uppermost. The floor of the raft was made from a wood or webbed grating. Commonly used on British warships in World War 1.
[11] The Great War- I Was There, Walter Farnden, part 15. pp. 604-7.
[12] Royle, Kitchener Enigma, p. 375.
[13] W. S. Chalmers, ‘Brock, Sir Osmond de Beauvoir (1869–1947)’, rev. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004
[14] Jane Storey;
[15] Ibid.
[16] The Times, 7 June 1916. p. 10.
[17] The War Illustrated, Volume 4, 17 June 1916, p. 410.
[18] The Times, 10 June, p. 8.
[19] The Times, 9 June 1916, p. 9.
[20] The Royal Naval Cemetery at Lyness on the island of Hoy is the resting place for 445 Commonwealth naval personnel, 109 of whom died in the First World War.
[21] National Archives ADM 53/66480 and ADM 53/67364.
[22] Royle, Kitchener Enigma, p. 371.