Isle of Wight Shipwrecks: 'HMS Gladiator', and the Submarine 'A1'
Created | Updated Oct 9, 2015
Isle Of Wight Shipwrecks
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In April 1908 two of the Royal Navy's ships were sunk in The Solent: HMS Tiger and HMS Gladiator.
On 2 April 1908 the 380-ton destroyer HMS Tiger took part in a Home Fleet exercise 20 miles south of the Isle of Wight to test defences against torpedo boats. She had been built in 1900 for the Admiralty by John Brown and Co, Clydebank. She had a speed of 30 knots and was armed with one 12-pounder and two torpedo tubes.
During the exercise, HMS Tiger crossed the bow of a nearby cruiser, HMS Berwick, and was sliced in half, her bow section sinking almost immediately. Fortunately the stern section stayed afloat long enough for most of her 63 crew to be rescued, but the captain and 27 members of the crew were drowned.
HMS Gladiator was a 12-year-old twin-screw 5,750-ton cruiser with a crew of 250 men. At 10.30am on 25 April, 1908 - a foul, misty, and snowy day - she left Portland bound for Portsmouth, while at 12.30 the American 11,630-ton mail liner St Paul1 left Southampton on her way to New York. St Paul and Gladiator entered Hurst Race at the same time, when the snow storm was at its height. The two ships were not visible to each other until they were less than half a mile apart, heading on a direct collision course.
Gladiator was moving at 9 knots, St Paul at 13. Although standard convention decrees that if two ships are on a collision course both ships should swing their helms hard to port, meaning that their bows swing to starboard so that they pass on the port side, on this occasion things went wrong. Captain Passow on St Paul ordered the helm hard to port, to swing the bow to starboard, yet St Paul signalled 'Going to port'. HMS Gladiator wrongly assumed that St Paul was swerving the wrong way, and went hard to starboard. The bow of St Paul headed straight for the cruiser, and at 2.30pm crashed straight into the cruiser's starboard side, killing many men.
The sea then rushed into Gladiator through the hole created by St Paul and, despite the sealing of watertight doors, water still poured into the ship at an alarming rate. The ship slowly turned over and capsized onto her starboard side, throwing many men into the water.
Gladiator grounded on Sconce Point, near Yarmouth, only 250 yards from the shore. Many men jumped into the sea in an attempt to swim to the Island, not knowing that the tidal current off Sconce Point is one of the most dangerous on Britain's coastline. Only four boats from Gladiator were launched, since many had been smashed by St Paul, and as Gladiator rested on her side, those on her port side could not be launched. Of the four boats, one sank immediately and another made just one journey ashore before sinking, leaving only two remaining.
St Paul was also helpless to assist, since her lifeboats could not be launched due to the blizzard. The ropes and pulleys that launched the lifeboats were frozen and blocked with ice. It took almost half an hour before the first lifeboat could be launched, only for it to be driven away from the men in the water by the wind.
Luckily Sconce Point was the site of Fort Victoria2, a Victorian fort that was now a Royal Engineers garrison. The fort's gig and three dinghies were launched to rescue the sailors, with many men wading and swimming in the ice-cold water to rescue them. Corporal Stenning is reported to have saved seven men, before he himself was rescued from the sea suffering from exposure. Gladiator was fully evacuated, with many of her sailors recovering in nearby Golden Hill Fort's military hospital.
One officer and 28 men had died, most of them drowned. Due to the swift current, however, only three of the bodies were found.
After five months' work, during which time she became something of a macabre tourist attraction for sightseers in hired boats, HMS Gladiator was stripped of her armament and righted. She was finally sold for scrap for less than the attempted salvage work had cost. St Paul returned to Southampton for repairs, and was soon shipshape again. But strangely enough, St Paul unaccountably capsized and sank in New York Harbour on 25 April, 1918, exactly 10 years after HMS Gladiator sank.
At the very edge of the waters surrounding the Isle of Wight lie the remains of the first British-designed submarine, A1. Two miles south of Chichester Harbour she lies, and in 1999 she became a Protected Site under the 1973 Protected Wrecks Act.
Submarine A1 seems to have had a cursed career. Early in the 20th Century the Admiralty decided to design and build submarines and evaluate their performance. The Admiralty had previously described them as 'a despicable, un-English weapon of war', yet felt that Britain could not afford to be left out in their development.
Designed initially as an improvement on the American 'Holland Class' submarine, yet later modified beyond all resemblance, HM Submarine No. 1 was built at Vickers and launched in 19023.
She displaced 110 tons, was over 63 feet long, and had a maximum beam of 12 feet, with a top speed of 8 knots. Her ballast tank was inside her pressure hull in a configuration known as 'spindle form'. She was armed with a single torpedo tube capable of firing an 18-inch torpedo. Although capable of travelling only 25 miles underwater, she was superior to contemporary French and American submarine design, and had an excellent dive time. Although lacking a conning tower, and often being swamped when surfaced, A1 had one distinct advantage over the Holland submarines: she had a periscope. By 1904 five 'A' Class submarines, as they were now called, had been built4.
By far her most important passenger was the Prince of Wales, later to become King George V. In March 1904 he took a trip in her, not long before her first disaster.
On 18 March, 1904, the five 'A' Class submarines took part in exercises off the Isle of Wight. The exercise consisted of a simulated attack on the cruiser Juno. It is believed that the Commander of A1, concentrating on pursuing Juno, failed to notice the steamer Berwick Castle steaming towards them. The captain of Berwick Castle, not having seen a submarine before, or even known of their existence, did not realise the implications, and despite attempting to avoid A1 at the last minute, they collided. A1 sank near the Nab Lightship5. All 14 of her crew perished in the accident.
A1 was then salvaged and repaired, and after a five-week refit served until 1910, when she was damaged by an internal explosion. Fortunately no-one was killed. Her crew were merely injured, with one of them, Petty Officer Drury, being blown out of the conning tower into the sea. The cause was found to be petrol vapour from the submarine's petrol engine.
The Loss of A1
A1 was then modified to become an unmanned target for the Admiralty Anti-Submarine Committee, and in 1911 was lost while under automatic control. Searches failed to find her. She was rediscovered by divers in the 1980s.
Her Sister Ships
One of the major faults of the 'A' Series vessels was a lack of buoyancy, a problem to affect all the 'A' class vessels. Two others of her class were lost in Island waters.
In October 1905 A4, commanded by Lieutenant Martin Nasmith, was swamped just as she was diving near Stokes Bay. She sank rapidly, but the quick thinking of Nasmith helped her resurface after only four minutes. She was towed to Portsmouth harbour by HMS Hazard, but suffered two violent explosions before sinking slowly beneath the waves.
The subsequent court martial found Lieutenant Nasmith guilty of default, but he was acquitted of the more serious charge of negligence. Nasmith was later awarded the Victoria Cross for action with the Submarine Service in the Dardanelles, and he even reached the rank of Admiral.
On 2 February, 1912, A3 was involved in a Fleet exercise to the south-east of the Isle of Wight. As she was surfacing, she was rammed and sunk by HMS Hazard, with the loss of 14 officers and men. HMS Hazard was an old torpedo-gunboat which since 1902 had been the Submarine Service's first depot ship.
By the outbreak of the First World War 'E' Class submarines had been introduced, carrying a crew of 30 and five torpedo tubes. By 1916, 55 'E' Class had been built.