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