A Mar­itime Mys­tery

Roger Paine re­flects on the un­timely death of Lord Kitch­ener and the gold that might have been with him . . .

Evergreen - - Contents - Roger Paine

ON May 31, 1916, HMS Hamp­shire, a 10,850- tonne ar­moured cruiser, had just taken part in the his­toric Bat­tle of Jut­land. The fol­low­ing day she was in­structed to sail to Scapa Flow in the Orkneys, to take the British Sec­re­tary of State for War, Lord Kitch­ener of Khar­toum, on a top se­cret diplo­matic mis­sion to Rus­sia.

The in­ten­tion was to stiffen the tsar’s re­solve, and of­fer him sup­port in main­tain­ing the An­glo- Rus­sian al­liance.

For Kitch­ener to reach St Peters­burg, it was in­tended the ship should sail through the wa­ters to the north of Scot­land, along the coast of Nor­way, then south past the Kola Penin­sula and through the White Sea to the port of Ar­changel.

A fierce gale was blow­ing from the north- east, and HMS Hamp­shire’s cap­tain, Her­bert Sav­ill, sug­gested to Lord Kitch­ener that he might post­pone his voy­age for 24 hours. But Kitch­ener re­fused to ac­cept any de­lay.

It was then that the British naval au­thor­i­ties made the first of a se­ries of fa­tal blun­ders. In view of the gale, they de­cided to re- route the Hamp­shire up the west coast of Orkney rather than the east coast, which was the more usual route for war­ships.

It was thought that the ship would be able to make bet­ter speed that way, which was on the lee side of the storm and there­fore safer from at­tack by en­emy sub­marines.

But the cruiser had hardly left the shel­ter of Scapa Flow be­fore the storm swung round from the north- east to the north- west, as could of­ten hap­pen in that area.

The Hamp­shire had a top speed of 22 knots, and could make 18 knots even in ad­verse weather con­di­tions. The two

de­stroy­ers as­signed as es­corts, HMS

Unity and HMS Vic­tor, soon fell be­hind. At 6.30 p. m., Cap­tain Sav­ill sig­nalled to the de­stroy­ers to re­turn to port, rea­son­ing that there was lit­tle point in them con­tin­u­ing if they could not keep up. It was a fate­ful de­ci­sion.

At 7.40 p. m., the Hamp­shire was about one and half miles off­shore be­tween Mar­wick Head and the Brough of Bir­say, one of the bleak­est and most re­mote cor­ners of Great Britain.

The ship struck a mine and im­me­di­ately took a sharp list to star­board, trap­ping hun­dreds of men be­low decks. Within 20 min­utes she had gone down bows first.

The ap­palling weather and the speed of the sink­ing made it im­pos­si­ble to launch any boats, with the ex­cep­tion of three Car­ley life- floats. But these were grossly over­crowded, with about 70 men on each raft, and 737 lives were lost. Only 12 crew mem­bers sur­vived.

None of the seven mem­bers of Kitch­ener’s mis­sion sur­vived. Ac­cord­ing to those who did sur­vive, Kitch­ener was last seen stand­ing calmly on the bridge in the com­pany of Cap­tain Sav­ill, ap­par­ently mak­ing no ef­fort to save him­self. A for­tune teller had once told him that he would die by wa­ter.

The num­ber of fa­tal­i­ties made the sink­ing of HMS Hamp­shire one of the worst naval dis­as­ters of the war.

No dis­tress sig­nal was trans­mit­ted by wire­less from the sink­ing ship, not even a rocket was fired. But an is­lan­der, Joe An­gus, a gun­ner in the Orkney Ter­ri­to­rial Forces, no­ticed a cruiser in dis­tress from his look­out at Bir­say.

Un­for­tu­nately, the first tele­graphic mes­sage to the au­thor­i­ties did not in­clude the in­for­ma­tion that the

Hamp­shire had sunk, caus­ing a twohour de­lay in a re­sponse from the navy.

There was also long- last­ing bit­ter­ness among the is­lan­ders to­wards the naval au­thor­i­ties, who for­bade them to launch the is­land’s own lifeboat to as­sist in the res­cue.

In ad­di­tion, in­struc­tions were is­sued that all is­lan­ders should re­main in­doors away from the cliffs in the vicin­ity of the dis­as­ter.

The rea­son for this high- handed ac­tion prob­a­bly had some­thing to do with es­tab­lish­ing proper se­cu­rity for

Kitch­ener in the event of him be­ing res­cued.

Or could it be that news had leaked out that the ship was car­ry­ing gold bul­lion to Rus­sia as a “sweet­ener” for that coun­try’s con­tin­ued sup­port in the war against Ger­many?

The ef­fect of the ban was coun­ter­pro­duc­tive. Those lucky enough to reach the shore alive were de­prived of help in scal­ing the cliffs. This be­lated ob­ses­sion with se­cu­rity, for what­ever rea­son, prob­a­bly served to in­crease the death toll.

More than any other per­son, Kitch­ener was iden­ti­fied as the leader of the war ef­fort. The re­ac­tion to the news of his death was one of stunned dis­be­lief.

Pub­lic pres­sure be­came so in­tense that in 1926, ten years af­ter the sink­ing, the govern­ment was forced to is­sue a White Pa­per re­veal­ing the find­ings of an in­ter­nal en­quiry into the sink­ing.

The next time the ill- fated cruiser made head­lines was the re­sult of an ar­ti­cle in the Ber­liner Zeitung in 1933, which car­ried a re­port re­fer­ring to the sal­vage of £ 60,000 ( worth £ 3.7m to­day) of gold bars from the Hamp­shire’s strong room. Overnight it be­came a sunken trea­sure ship.

There was such an out­break of in­ter­est across the world that the Ad­mi­ralty once again felt obliged to is­sue a state­ment. It claimed it knew noth­ing of the sal­vage, but that HMS

Hamp­shire re­mained the prop­erty of HM Govern­ment and could not be touched without per­mis­sion.

Trea­sure in sunken ships has been the sub­ject of le­gend and imag­i­na­tion from the days of the Span­ish galleons with holds crammed full of gold bars all the way to the first fifty years of the last cen­tury, when the world wit­nessed the great­est move­ment of gold by sea ever known.

It should come as no sur­prise to dis­cover, then, that gold was be­ing taken by sea to Rus­sia at the height of World War I.

Some light was thrown on the mys­tery of the Hamp­shire’s gold in Charles Court­ney’s book “Un­lock­ing Ad­ven­ture”, which de­scribed in de­tail a highly se­cre­tive 1933 sal­vage at­tempt by a group of divers work­ing off a ship from Kiel, Ger­many. This in­cluded the re­port of a strange ship in the vicin­ity of Mar­wick Head dur­ing long pe­ri­ods in the sum­mer of 1933, which was cor­rob­o­rated by lo­cal ob­servers on the is­land.

It seems that the op­er­a­tion had to be aborted af­ter a se­ri­ous ac­ci­dent which re­sulted in one diver be­ing killed and two oth­ers be­ing taken to hos­pi­tal.

The au­thor of the book also be­lieved that there was in to­tal £ 2m ( worth £ 128m to­day) of gold des­tined for Rus­sia. The book in­cluded de­tails of a group of in­ter­na­tional fi­nanciers who backed the op­er­a­tion.

These in­cluded the Ger­man in­dus­tri­al­ist Gus­tav Krupp, and the no­to­ri­ous arms dealer Sir Basil Za­haroff, who was thought to be firm friends with British Prime Min­ster

Overnight it be­came a sunken trea­sure ship

David Lloyd Ge­orge. One of the prob­lems with the

Hamp­shire gold is that the govern­ment, the Bank of Eng­land and the Min­istry of De­fence have con­sis­tently de­nied any knowl­edge of gold be­ing on board.

Although that is not quite the same thing as say­ing there is no gold. It could also be ex­plained by the govern­ment be­ing anx­ious not to dis­turb the wreck be­cause of its sta­tus as a war grave.

In the 1980s, the Min­istry of De­fence ac­cused a Ger­man- based un­der­wa­ter film- maker of il­lic­itly re­mov­ing items from the wreck.

Although this op­er­a­tion did not re­veal any gold, it did con­firm that the dam­age to the ship’s hull was con­sis­tent with the ex­plo­sion of a mine.

The lat­est un­der­sea ex­plo­ration of the wreck com­menced in May 2016, as part of a col­lab­o­ra­tive project be­tween ORCA Marine, the Univer­sity of the High­lands & Is­lands and Seatron­ics.

The ex­pe­di­tion’s ob­jec­tive, un­der li­cence from the Min­istry of De­fence, was to un­der­take a de­tailed sur­vey of the wreck us­ing stills and video pho­tog­ra­phy and the lat­est un­der­wa­ter pho­togram­me­try tech­niques. There has been no men­tion, how­ever, of a search for gold. On the cen­te­nary of HMS

Hamp­shire’s sink­ing in 2016, the Orkney Her­itage So­ci­ety re­stored the Kitch­ener Memo­rial, a large stone tower high on the cliffs over­look­ing the wa­ters where the wreck lies. The so­ci­ety also built an im­pres­sive low gran­ite wall around it which records the names of all 737 lost in the sink­ing.

De­spite the dryly sci­en­tific pur­pose for the most re­cent sur­vey of the wreck, ru­mours of gold refuse to go away.

One the­ory is that if there was gold on board, it was pri­vately owned Rus­sian gold, held by the Ro­manov fam­ily in Britain – and ur­gently re­quired in Rus­sia be­cause of the im­pend­ing Bol­she­vik revo­lu­tion.

One thing that re­mains cer­tain is that the Hamp­shire’s gold still poses sev­eral unan­swered ques­tions, and con­tin­ues to fas­ci­nate, as does the story of how one of our most recog­niseable World War I lead­ers per­ished in this tragedy.

Kitch­ener was the face of the war ef­fort.

The Kitch­ener Memo­rial on Orkney.

HMS Hamp­shire was launched in 1903.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.