The WWI cruiser that traveled the world, and survived Jutland, only to sink to a mine.
Even the mightiest warship can succumb to an unforeseen hazard. Weak armor, an unsafe magazine, or even a fresh coat of paint can doom a ship and crew. Others are wasted by negligence and bad handling. Many have sunk from the unseen devil of modern history—the naval mine—cast with impunity by belligerents in sea lanes and harbors.
While sailing on USS Cone (DD-866) in the North Sea after World War II, my grandfather witnessed a mine floating past his destroyer. The bobbing weapon, likely snapped from its mooring chain and left to float freely, was a parting gift from whoever left it. The Cone moved to a safe distance and the mine was destroyed by gunfire. My grandfather and his shipmates were lucky that day. Many sailors, like those of the HMS Hampshire, were killed by mines without ever seeing the devices.
On 5 June 1916, HMS Hampshire departed the Royal Navy base at Scapa Flow on a special mission to Russia. The 10,850-ton armored cruiser carried a distinguished passenger: Horatio Herbert Lord Kitchener, the Secretary of State for War who meant to meet with the Tsar on the war effort. Ship and crew served well since the start of the Great War. In 1914, Hampshire hunted German Emden in faraway seas but missed the elusive raider on several occasions.¹ The cruiser was everywhere else: troop convoy duty in the Indian Ocean and Red Sea, refitting at Gibraltar, and protecting merchant ships in the White Sea.² From 31 May-1 June 1916, Hampshire was with 2nd Cruiser Squadron off the Jutland coast in the largest naval battle of the time. Ship and crew survived that as well, and a few days later, traveled to Scapa Flow to take Lord Kitchener on a fateful voyage into the North Sea.
Weather was not ideal for Kitchener’s trip. Hampshire left Scapa Flow on 5 June in a growing gale. The commanding officer, Capt. Herbert J. Savill, was ordered by Admiral Jellicoe to take a western route around the Orkneys, this having the advantage of missing U-boats and foul weather.³ The cruiser would be escorted for the first 200 miles by two destroyers, Victor and Unity. A 50-knot wind forced Savill to reduce his speed to 18 knots. The destroyers were slowed to 12-15 knots and eventually ordered home.
At approximately 7:45 p.m., the Fraser family of Feaval, Birsay reportedly came outside to see the cruiser as it passed just over a mile from the coast. The witnesses, according to Miller’s Scapa, saw a tremendous explosion with flames around Hampshire‘s forward gun turret.³ The cruiser sank fifteen minutes later. Two hundred crewmen escaped in lifeboats, only to be pummeled and capsized by the surf. The ones who emerged on the coast between Marwick and the Bay of Skail were exposed to the elements. Out of a ship’s complement of 655 officers and men, only 12 survived the tragedy. Lord Kitchener was not among them.
Despite early rumors of sabotage, it was later believed the cruiser had gone into a minefield courtesy of the German submarine U-75. Submarine-launched mines were useful against enemy ships. Any targets that got away could be torpedoed. The Hampshire‘s loss was a reminder of undersea weapons that were constantly evolving but hardly understood by their enemies. U-boats would not be countered until the end of the Second World War—nearly three decades after the tomb of HMS Hampshire had settled on the ocean floor.
Editor’s note: The following publications are superb resources for anyone interested in naval history. Bennett’s Naval Battles remains one of my favorites, while Miller’s Scapa offers a fantastic visit to one of Britain’s most vital military bases of the period.
¹Bennett, Geoffrey. Naval Battles of the First World War. (Penguin Books)
²Wikipedia article, “HMS Hampshire (1903)“
³Miller, James. Scapa. (Birlinn)