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ID #5370

Sinking of HMS Birkenhead, Danger Point, Gansbaai, Walker Bay, Western Cape, South Africa.

HMS Birkenhead was one of the first iron-hulled ships built for the Royal Navy. She was designed as a frigate, but was converted to a troopship before being commissioned. On 26 February 1852, while transporting troops to Algoa Bay, she was wrecked at Danger Point near Gansbaai. There were not enough serviceable lifeboats for all the passengers, and the soldiers famously stood firm, thereby allowing the women and children to board the boats safely. Only 193 of the 643 people on board survived, and the soldiers' chivalry gave rise to the "women and children first" protocol when abandoning ship, while the "Birkenhead drill" of Rudyard Kipling's poem came to describe courage in face of hopeless circumstances.

The Birkenhead was laid down at John Laird's shipyard at Birkenhead as the frigate HMS Vulcan, but renamed Birkenhead after the town where she was built. In the words of her designer, John Laird: “ The designs I submitted, and which were finally approved, were of a vessel 210 feet (64 m) long (being about 20 feet (6.1 m) longer than any vessel of her class had been built), and 37'6 beam with a displacement of 1918 tons on the load water-line of 15'6. The only change made by authorities at the Admiralty in these designs was the position of the paddle shaft, which they ordered to be moved several feet more forward; the change was unfortunate as it makes the vessel, unless due care is taken in stowing the hold, trim by the head. With this exception, I am answerable for the model, specification, displacement and general arrangement of the hull of the vessel.”

The Birkenhead was launched on 30 December 1845 by the Marchioness of Westminster. Her hull then weighed 903 tons and drew 9.75 feet (2.97 m), although she was at this time missing approximately 15 tons of cabin fittings. Machinery, stores, and other fittings were expected to add an additional 1,000 or so tons, increasing her draught six more feet. She undertook her maiden voyage to Plymouth in 1846, averaging between 12 and 13 knots for the journey.

She was never commissioned as a frigate for two reasons. Firstly, the Royal Navy's warships were switched from paddle wheels to more efficient propeller propulsion following an experiment organized by the Admiralty in 1845 in which the benefits of the propeller over the paddle wheel were dramatically demonstrated. Secondly, the Admiralty had doubts about the effects of cannon shot against iron hulls — in a number of trials carried out at Royal Arsenal, shot made a jagged hole that was hard to plug.

As part of her conversion to a troopship in 1851, a forecastle and poop deck were added to increase her accommodation, and a third mast added, to change her sail plan to a barquentine. Although she never served as a warship, she was faster and more comfortable than any of the wooden sail-driven troopships of the time, making the trip from the Cape in 37 days in October 1850.

In January 1852, under the command of Captain Robert Salmond, the Birkenhead left Portsmouth conveying troops from ten regiments, including the 74th Regiment of Foot and Queen's Royal Regiment, to the 8th Xhosa War against the Xhosa in South Africa. On 5 January she picked up more soldiers at Queenstown (now Cobh), Ireland and some officers' wives and families.

On 23 February 1852 Birkenhead docked briefly at Simonstown. Most of the women and children disembarked along with a number of sick soldiers. Nine cavalry horses, several bales of hay and 35 tons of coal were loaded for the last leg of the voyage to Algoa Bay. She sailed from Simonstown at 06:00 on 25 February 1852 with between 630 and 643 men, women, and children aboard, the number being in some doubt. To make the best possible speed, Captain Salmond decided to hug the South African coast, setting a course that was generally within 4.8 km of the shore. Using her paddle wheels she maintained a steady speed of 8.5 knots. The sea was calm and the night was clear as she left False Bay and headed east. Shortly before 02:00 on 26 February, the leadsman made soundings of 12 fathoms. Before he could take another sounding she struck an uncharted rock. The rock lies near Danger Point. Barely submerged, it is clearly visible in rough seas, but it is not immediately apparent in calmer conditions.

Captain Salmond rushed on deck and ordered the anchor to be dropped, the quarter-boats to be lowered, and a turn astern to be given by the engines. However, as the ship backed off the rock, sea rushed into the large hole made by the collision and the ship struck again, buckling the plates of the forward bilge and ripping open the bulkheads. Shortly, the forward compartments and the engine rooms were flooded, and over 100 soldiers drowned in their berths.

The surviving soldiers mustered and awaited their officers' orders. Salmond ordered Colonel Seton to send men to the chain pumps, and sixty were directed to this task. Sixty more were assigned to the tackles of the lifeboats, while the rest were assembled on the poop deck to raise the forward part of the ship. The women and children were placed in the ship's cutter, which lay alongside. Two other boats were manned, but one was immediately swamped and the other could not be launched due to poor maintenance and paint on the winches, leaving only three boats available. The two large boats, with capacities of 150 men each, were not among them.

The surviving officers and men assembled on deck, where Lieutenant-Colonel Seton of the 74th Foot took charge of all military personnel and stressed the necessity of maintaining order and discipline to his officers. Almost everybody kept silent, indeed nothing was heard, but the kicking of the horses and the orders of Salmond, all given in a clear firm voice. Ten minutes after the first impact, the engines still turning astern, the ship struck again beneath the engine room, tearing open her bottom. She instantly broke in two just aft of the mainmast. The funnel went over the side and the forepart of the ship sank at once. The stern section, now crowded with men, floated for a few minutes before sinking.

Just before she sank, Salmond called out that "all those who can swim jump overboard, and make for the boats". Recognizing that rushing the lifeboats would risk swamping them and endangering the women and children, Colonel Seton ordered the men to stand fast, and only three men made the attempt. The cavalry horses were freed and driven into the sea in the hope that they might be able to swim ashore. The soldiers did not move, even as the ship broke up barely 20 minutes after striking the rock. Some of the soldiers managed to swim the 2 miles (3.2 km) to shore over the next 12 hours, often hanging on to pieces of the wreck to stay afloat, but most drowned, died of exposure or were taken by sharks.

In the words of Lieutenant J.F. Girardot, 43rd Light Infantry, in a letter to his father on 1 March 1852:
“I remained on the wreck until she went down; the suction took me down some way, and a man got hold of my leg, but I managed to kick him off and came up and struck out for some pieces of wood that were on the water and started for land, about two miles (3 km) off. I was in the water about five hours, as the shore was so rocky and the surf ran so high that a great many were lost trying to land. Nearly all those that took to the water without their clothes on were taken by sharks; hundreds of them were all round us, and I saw men taken by them close to me, but as I was dressed (having on a flannel shirt and trousers) they preferred the others. I was not in the least hurt, and am happy to say, kept my head clear; most of the officers lost their lives from losing their presence of mind and trying to take money with them, and from not throwing off their coats.”

The next morning the schooner Lioness discovered one of the cutters, and after saving the occupants of the second boat made her way to the scene of the disaster. Arriving in the afternoon, she found 40 people still clinging to the rigging. Of the 643 people aboard only 193 were saved. Captain Edward WC Wright of the 91st Argyllshire Regiment was the most senior army officer to survive. He was awarded a brevet majority for his actions during the ordeal. The number of personnel aboard is in some doubt, but an estimate of 638 was published in The Times. It is generally thought that the survivors comprised 113 soldiers, 6 Royal Marines, 54 seamen, 7 women, 13 children and at least one male civilian, but these numbers cannot be substantiated, as the muster rolls and books were lost with the ship. Of the horses, eight made it safely to land, while the ninth had its leg broken while being pushed into the sea.

A plaque erected in 1936 commemorating the sinking of the Birkenhead, affixed to the Danger Point lighthouse near Gansbaai reads as follows: “This disaster started the protocol of "women and children first!" which subsequently became standard evacuation procedure in maritime disasters, although the phrase was not coined until 1860.  Similarly, "Birkenhead Drill" carried out by soldiers became the epitome of courageous behaviour in hopeless circumstances.”

The phrase appears in Rudyard Kipling's tribute to the Royal Marines, Soldier an' Sailor Too:

To take your chance in the thick of a rush, with firing all about,
Is nothing so bad when you've cover to 'and, an' leave an' likin' to shout;
But to stand an' be still to the Birken'ead drill is a damn tough bullet to chew,
An' they done it, the Jollies -- 'Er Majesty's Jollies -- soldier an' sailor too!
Their work was done when it 'adn't begun; they was younger nor me an' you;
Their choice it was plain between drownin' in 'eaps an' bein' mopped by the screw,
So they stood an' was still to the Birken'ead drill, soldier an' sailor too

The phrase also appears in Robert A. Heinlein's Double Star: “I knew I was sunk-but, damn it, if you are caught by the Birkenhead Drill, the least you owe yourself is to stand at attention while the ship goes down.”

And in David Weber's novel Mutineers' Moon: “And if he was caught in the Birkenhead Drill, he could at least try to do his best till the ship went down.”

A number of sailors were court-martialled as a result of the accident. The court was held aboard HMS Victory in Portsmouth, and attracted a great deal of interest. However as none of the senior officers survived, no-one was found to be to blame. Captain Edward WC Wright of the 91st Argyllshire Regiment told the court martial: “The order and regularity that prevailed on board, from the moment the ship struck till she totally disappeared, far exceeded anything that I had thought could be affected by the best discipline; and it is the more to be wondered at seeing that most of the soldiers were but a short time in the service. Everyone did as he was directed and there was not a murmur or cry amongst them until the ship made her final plunge – all received their orders and carried them out as if they were embarking instead of going to the bottom – I never saw any embarkation conducted with so little noise or confusion.”

In 1895 a lighthouse was erected at Danger Point to warn shipping of the dangerous reef. The lighthouse is about 18 metres tall and is visible for approximately 46 km. In 1936, a remembrance plate for the Birkenhead was affixed to its base by the Navy League of South Africa. A new Birkenhead memorial was erected in March 1995. In December 2001, the plaque was moved closer to the lighthouse.

A memorial in St Giles' Cathedral, Edinburgh bears the following inscription: In memory of Lieut.-Colonel Alexander Seton, Ensign Alex. C. Russell, and forty-eight N.C.O.s and men of the 74th Highlanders who were drowned at the wreck of H.M.S. Birkenhead on the 26th February 1852, off Point Danger, Cape of Good Hope, after all the women and children on board had been safely landed in the ship's boats. Frederick William IV of Prussia recognized the bravery of the soldiers and ordered an account of the incident to be read at the head of every regiment in his army. Queen Victoria ordered the erection of an official Birkenhead monument at the Chelsea Royal Hospital. In 1892, Thomas M. M. Hemy painted a widely admired maritime depiction of the incident, "The wreck of the Birkenhead".  Prints of this painting were distributed to the public. In 1977, the South African mint issued a "Heroes of the Birkenhead Medallion" gold coin commemorating the 125 years since the sinking, featuring Hemy's painting on one of the faces of the coin.

There is a rumour that the Birkenhead was carrying a military payroll of £240,000 in gold coins weighing about three tons, which had been secretly stored in the powder-room before the final voyage. Numerous attempts have been made to salvage the gold. In 1893, the nephew of Colonel Seton wrote that a certain Mr. Bandmann at the Cape obtained permission from the Cape Government to dive the wreck of the Birkenhead in search of the treasure.  During a salvage attempt in June 1958, a diver recovered anchors and some brass fittings, but no gold. In 1986-1988, a combined archaeological and salvage excavation was carried out by Aqua Exploration, Depth Recovery Unit and Pentow Marine. Only a few gold coins were recovered which appear to have been the personal possessions of the passengers and crew. Rumours of treasure and the shallow depth (30m) have resulted in the wreck being disturbed over the years, despite its being a war grave. In 1989, the British and South African Governments entered into an agreement over the salvage of the wreck, sharing any gold recovered. Salmonsdam Nature Reserve in the Overberg is named after Captain Robert Salmond. To this day, locals call Great White Sharks "Tommy Sharks" after the soldiers taken by them in the water. NFSinking

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Last update: 2014-05-14 01:29
Author: Alan McIver
Revision: 1.6

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