Paul Baker

Paul Baker has 10 articles published.

Tribute to Lord Nelson

in Features

AND
All those that took part in the Battle of Trafalgar
October 21st 1805

Part 1 of 2

THE FOLLOWING IS AN EXTRACT OF A LETTER WRITTEN BY AN OFFICER OF THE BELLEROPHON: DEC. 9, 1805

I had the pleasure of writing to my aunt from off Cadiz, on the 21st of September, just after the entry of the combined fleets into that place. I am happy to convey you now the intelligence of their entire defeat; which, though I was confident would take place whenever they mustered courage enough to come out, yet I scarcely expected they would so soon have given us an opportunity of again showing the superiority of the British Navy. You will doubtless have already seen a much better account of the action than I can possibly give you; but as I hope  what few particulars I have been able to obtain, will not prove unacceptable to you, I sit down to give you the best account in my power.— The combined fleet, after their action with Sir R. Calder, put into Vigo, and leaving there three of their disabled ships, sailed again for Ferrol, off which they were joined by fourteen sail of the line, and proceeded with the whole of their fleet, consisting of twenty- nine sail of the line, to Cadiz, where they arrived on the 20th of August. Admiral Collingwood, with four sail of the line, was cruising off the port when they hove in sight, and would most probably have been taken had they attempted to pursue him, which luckily they did not. The Bellerophon, and three more sail of the line, which were up the Strait, joined Admiral Collingwood on the 23d, and Sir R. Calder’s squadron on the 31st. Our fleet then consisted of twenty- six sail of the line, and we immediately resumed the blockade of Cadiz with the greatest severity, till Lord Nelson joined and took the command on the 29th of September. His plan being to give the enemy an opportunity of coming out, he only left a squadron of frigates cruising off the harbour, whilst the fleet continued cruising to the N.W., frequently out of sight of land.

As we knew the enemy, who were now reinforced by five sail of the line in Cadiz, had positive order to put to sea, and retrieve their character, after their action with Sir R. Calder, we were in momentary expectation of their coming out, and every ship that was perceived coming from the in-shore squadron was expected to convey the welcome intelligence. Everyone was in the highest spirits ; and so confident were our people of success, that on the very morning of the action, when we were bearing down on a superior fleet, they were employed in fixing the number of their prizes, and pitching upon that which should fall to the lot of each of our ships: ours, by the calculation of the oldest sailors on board, was to have been the Santisima Trinidad, the Spanish four-decker; and I dare say we were far from being the only ship in the fleet that had fixed upon her.

We were not long kept in that state of anxiety and suspense, which you will naturally suppose everyone in our situation must have felt, for about nine o’clock in the morning of the 19th of October, the Mars was observed firing guns and making signals for the enemy’s fleet being getting under weigh. The Admiral immediately made signal for a general chase, and to clear for action, which was obeyed with the greatest alacrity, and in ten minutes the whole fleet was under all sail, steering for the Straits, which was supposed to be the enemy’s destination, for the purpose of forming a junction with the Carthagena and Toulon squadrons.

The Bellerophon, Belleisle, Leviathan; Orion, and Polyphemus, soon showed their superiority of sailing, and got far ahead of the rest of the fleet: at day-light in the morning we were in sight of the Rock of Gibraltar, but on a frigate’s making signal for the enemy’s fleet bearing N.E., wore, and again formed the order of sailing: the day was unfavourable and weather squally, so that we did not get sight of the enemy, though our small vessels formed a chain betwixt them and us. In the following night we got so close to them as to perceive plainly their signals, and everyone was in the most anxious state of suspense, till day-light the next morning (21st,) when the enemy was plainly discerned about seven miles to leeward of us, and about five leagues from Cape Trafalgar. Every advantage was on their side; they had thirty-three sail of the line, whilst we had only twenty-seven: they were full of Seamen and troops, and had a friendly port under their lee: whilst we had to beat off shore after the action, and might certainly have expected some of our disabled ships would have drifted on shore, but nothing was an obstacle to the Hero of Aboukir, and he immediately made signal to bear down upon the enemy in two columns, himself in the Victory leading the starboard division, Admiral Collingwood in the Royal Sovereign the larboard one, in which the Bellerophon was the fifth ship; no signal was ever obeyed with more promptitude; one would have thought that the people were preparing for a festival, rather than a combat; and no satisfaction was expressed, except at the state of the weather, which was calm, and prevented our nearing the enemy till ten o’clock, when a light breeze springing up, we came up with them fast. They were in the meantime employed in forming a close and well-imagined, though, till now, unexampled order of battle; but which, had their plan of defence been as well executed as it was contrived, would have rendered our victory much more dearly bought than it has been: they were formed in a double line, thus 123-456 French and Spaniards alternately, and it was their intention on our breaking the line (which manoeuvre they expected we should as usual put in execution) astern of No.4, for No.2 to make sail, that the British ship in hauling up should fall on board of her, while No.5 should bear up and rake her, and No.1 would bring her broadside to bear, on her starboard bow. Luckily, this manoeuvre only succeeded with the Tonnant and Bellerophon, which were among the ships that suffered most.

A few moments before the action commenced; Lord Nelson conveyed the following sentence by telegraph, to the fleet” England expects every man will do his duty!” The loud and repeated cheering with which this was received, was a convincing proof that such an injunction was needless.

At noon precisely the action commenced by the Fougeux and Monarca opening fire on the Royal Sovereign. . 

Part 2 to follow next month. 

WS21S Operation pedestal

in Features

PART 2

This article is a tribute to all seamen that sailed the seas during the war to keep us supplied. Whenever Poppy Day is mentioned, people immediately think of the soldiers that died. Only afterwards do the Merchant Seamen and Navy get a mention. Without the heroic action of these men, neither the Army nor the Airforce would have been able to continue the battle and we civilians would have starved. I

t must be remembered that there were seamen of many nations both from the Commonwealth, the United States and occupied Europe fighting under the Red and White Ensigns and flags of many other nations. This is also a tribute to the people of Gibraltar who played no small part in keeping the ships repaired and supplied.

Britain Never Stood Alone.

To most of us, the title means nothing. It was, however, one of the most important events in the battle for the Mediterranean in World War II.

Italy entered the conflict on June 10th 1940 declaring war on Great Britain.

Mussolini had a very strong naval capability in the Mediterranean which posed a problem for the Allies fighting in North Africa. Rommel depended on supplies from Italy to enable the Axis forces to continue the fight in North Africa. Unfortunately for him, Malta was in the middle of their supply route and was a thorn in his side. 

The Allies likewise had the problem that Malta had to be kept supplied in order to maintain the attacks on Rommel’s supply route. With Sicily only about 200 miles from Malta, both German and Italian aircraft were able to attack Malta with impunity, less than two hours away. 

On 12th the convoy entered the dreaded “Canale di Sicilia” where HMS Kenya was hit by a torpedo from the Italian submarine Alagi. A torpedo hit the bow and blew off a large section around the waterline. She returned to Gibraltar. 

As the ships passed Pantellaria, the island in the middle of the Straits of Sicilia, HMS Manchester was attacked by motor torpedo boats MS16 and MS22 of the Italian navy. Two torpedoes struck the ship amidships on the starboard side flooding the boiler room and magazine also damaging three of the propeller shafts and causing a 12° list. The ship was soon out of control and attempts made to scuttle her were in vain, so she was finally torpedoed by HMS Pathfinder. The destroyers HMS Eskimo and Somali were sent back to help Manchester but arrived after she had sunk so they picked up survivors from Manchester and then made for Gibraltar, arriving on afternoon of 15th.

The destroyer HMS Ithurie attacked the Italian submarine Cobalto with depth charges and after a gun battle rammed and sunk her, but the Ithurie received damage to the bow and had to return to Gibraltar for repairs.

The cruiser HMS Charybdis was screening the carrier force when two bombs landed on the unarmoured part of the flight deck of HMS Indomitable forcing her to leave the convoy and head for Gibraltar. All the aircraft that were airborne at the time landed on HMS Victorious, however her deck was also damaged by a dud aerial torpedo.

The destroyer HMS Foresight was torpedoed by motor torpedo boats, she flooded aft and was unable to steer and taken in tow heading for Gibraltar but became unmanageable so was later sunk by HMS Tarter.

The Axis losses were relatively light, consisting of two submarines, two motor torpedo boats two cruisers damaged. The latter was part of the action off the north of Sicily, referred to above. 

Up to now only the naval actions have been covered, the merchant ships were the object of the exercise. This consisted of fourteen ships. 

The convoy entered Gibraltar on august 10th in heavy fog. Spies in Algeciras, Spain and Ceuta across the Strait in North Africa failed to spot the passage of the convoy through the Strait of Gibraltar in the fog, but were spotted by German reconnaissance aircraft in the morning and not long after the attacks commenced.

Ohio, a US tanker carrying diesel and kerosene, was torpedoed by the Italian submarine Alagi on evening of 12th and hit several times before being towed into Malta on 13th.

Melbourne Star, cargo ship carried aviation fuel, kerosene, shells and fuel oil. Set on fire by flying wreckage from the exploding Waimarama. Arrived in Malta on 13th with cargo intact.

Dorset disabled by bombs from Stuka attack, engine room flooded cargo on fire, abandoned and again bombed. Sank on 13th.

Waimarama, cargo ship with aviation fuel, and ammunition was hit by attacks by MTBs, blew up and sank in seconds on 13th.

Rochester Castle hit in No3 hold by two torpedoes from German E boats but was able to continue. Arrived on 13th

Brisbane Star, cargo ship, with a cargo similar to Melbourne, was hit by a torpedo from the Italian submarine Alagi, which badly damaged the bow. Later attacked by torpedo bombers but the torpedoes were dud. The ship was able to reach Malta on 14th with her cargo intact. 

Port Charmers was saved by a torpedo being caught in a paravane cable and safely released, arrived on 13th

Almeria Lykes torpedoed by German E boat S36 and then again by Italian MAS554. She was abandoned and scuttled on 13th

Clan Ferguson hit by bombs and then by torpedo from Italian submarine Alagi which explodes the cargo of ammunition and she sinks on 12th

Deucalion hit by aerial torpedo, set on fire and blew up following a torpedo attack by the Italian submarine Bronzo. Sinks on 12th

Empire Hope set on fire by bombs and abandoned sunk by HMS Penn. The Italian submarine Alagi also claimed this sinking on 12th

Glenorchy torpedoed by Italian MTB MS31 sank on 13th

Santa Eliza with a cargo of aviation fuel in drums, hit by torpedo from MTBs, set on fire, abandoned. Attacked again and another fire started. Sank on 13th

Wairangi torpedoed by E boat. Engine room and No3 hold flooded. Sank on 13th

The destroyers HMS Penn, Bingham and Ledbury were used to rescue survivors from the various ships. HMS Ledbury steamed into a burning sea of fuel on one occasion to rescue survivors from Waimarama.

Of the fourteen ships, only five reached Malta with 29,000tons of cargo, fuel, and ammunition. Enough for ten weeks was delivered to the embattled island but at what cost? The royal Navy suffered 426 dead, the Merchant Navy, 120 men. This figure was obtained by adding the list of casualties for each ship, found on the internet and may not be accurate.  

This article has concentrated on actions by Italian and German naval forces, but much of the damage to the convoy was done by Italian torpedo carrying aircraft and German Stuka dive bombers. Use was made of radio controlled aircraft, parachute released bombs and torpedoes that circled in an increasing spiral. The effectiveness of these weapons is in doubt. 

There was also an action at the same time, as mentioned above, between British submarines and Italian cruisers along the north coast of Sicily. 

There is some confusion about attacks by the motor torpedo boats, some references claim all to be Italian, others say, some German E boats, no doubt it was a combination of the two. 

Apart from the main naval force, there were a number of other ships referred to in various reports as taking part in Operation Berzerk but do not get a mention in the actual action other than the tug Jaunty. The four sloops Jonquil, Spiraea, Coltsfoot and Geranium were escort to the two RFA tankers, Brown Ranger and Dingledale and presumable continued with them after the final fuelling on 10th August to Gibraltar, otherwise the RFA tankers would have been prime targets as was the Ohio. The only other vessel in the list was the salvage ship Salvonia. What part she played is unknown. 

There is reference above to a paravane. This was a torpedo shaped float with a stabilising fin which was streamed out from a warship during mine sweeping operations to snag the tethering wires of mines. 

The following is a list of the destroyers attached to the convoy.

Including those escorting HMS Furious:-  

HMS Ashanti,        

HMS Tartar

HMS Antelope, 

HMS Vansittart, 

HMS Westcotte

HMS Wrestler, 

HMS Eskimo

HMS Ithuriel, 

HMS Laforey

HMS Wilton, 

HMS Wishart, 

HMS Bicester, 

HMS Bramham, 

HMS Derwent, 

HMS Foresight, 

HMS Fury, 

HMS Icarus, 

HMS Intrepid, 

HMS Keppel

HMS Lookout, 

HMS Amazon, 

HMS Zetland

HMS Quentin,

HMS Ledbury, 

HMS Pathfinder, 

HMS Penn, 

HMS Malcolm

HMS Venomous

HMS Wolverine

HMS Lightning

Other ships (the four Flower Class Corvettes were escorts
to the RFA Tankers during
Operation Berzerk)

HMS Coltsfoot

HMS Geranium

HMS Jonquil

HMS Spirea

HMT Jaunty

HMS Salvonia (Salvage)

RFA Dingledale

RFA Brown Ranger

The story of the US tanker Ohio is an epic in its own right and may be covered at some future date.

Acknowledgements

I have used the internet and Wikipedia extensively as well as books from my own library to cross check the information as much as possible. I have found many glaring errors in many reports and inconsistencies in others, even by eye witnesses, which I hope I have managed to correct, I would welcome any comments on the subject.

WS21S Operation pedestal

in Features

Part 1

This article is a tribute to all seamen that sailed the seas during the war to keep us supplied. Whenever Poppy Day is mentioned, people immediately think of the soldiers that died. Only afterwards do the Merchant Seamen and Navy get a mention. Without the heroic action of these men, neither the Army nor the Airforce would have been able to continue the battle and we civilians would have starved. It must be remembered that there were seamen of many nations both from the Commonwealth, the United States and occupied Europe fighting under the Red and White Ensigns and flags of many other nations. This is also a tribute to the people of Gibraltar who played no small part in keeping the ships repaired and supplied.

Britain Never Stood Alone.

To most of us, the title means nothing. It was, however, one of the most important events in the battle for the Mediterranean in World War II.

Italy entered the conflict on June 10th 1940 declaring war on Great Britain.

Mussolini had a very strong naval capability in the Mediterranean which posed a problem for the Allies fighting in North Africa. Rommel depended on supplies from Italy to enable the Axis forces to continue the fight in North Africa. Unfortunately for him, Malta was in the middle of their supply route and was a thorn in his side. 

The Allies likewise had the problem that Malta had to be kept supplied in order to maintain the attacks on Rommel’s supply route. With Sicily only about 200 miles from Malta, both German and Italian aircraft were able to attack Malta with impunity, less than two hours away. 

The only way to supply Malta was by sea. The bottleneck of the Canale di Sicilia, called by the Navy “The Narrows” meant that the Italian Navy, based in Taranto could lay wait knowing that the British convoys had to pass between Sicily and the North African coast. To make matters worse, there was the Italian island of Pantelleria right in the middle of the strait.

In 1942 the situation in Malta was getting desperate, There was little food, ammunition or fuel to carry on the fight against continuous airborne attacks. 

The Axis had advanced within 90 miles of Alexandria so supplies from the east were out of the question. It was decided that relief for Malta was imperative. On July 13th the decision was taken to send a convoy to Malta. Operation Pedestal was created. Given the designation WS21S and would consist of fourteen merchant ships, protected by two battleships, Rodney and Nelson, three carriers, Victorious, Indomitable and Eagle, seven cruisers, Nigeria, Manchester, Kenya, Cairo, Charybdis, Phoebe and Sirius and twenty-seven destroyers. The carrier HMS Furious was to leave Gibraltar, with a destroyer escort, carrying 38 spitfires which were to fly off to Malta as soon as they were in range. The carrier HMS Argus joined the fleet but only took part in Operation Berzerk, which was a trial in the Atlantic for the convoy protection.

The Germans were aware that the British intended to resupply Malta. The Canale di Sicilia was mined from Cap Graniti in Sicily to Ra’s al Tib in Tunisia.

Some of the ships sailed from Scapa Flow in Scotland, which included the carrier HMS Furious, heading for the Atlantic off Gibraltar to carry out training for the coming battle called Operation Berserk, which was held between August 5th and 10th. Although the fleet had its own tankers, Dingledale and Brown Ranger, due to the bad weather, the warships returned to Gibraltar for fuel during the exercise.

The fleet was divided into two:-

Force X, consisting of the cruisers Nigeria, Manchester and Cairo with twelve destroyers.

Force Z with Battleship Nelson and Rodney, The carriers Victorious, Indomitable, Eagle and cruisers Charybdis, Sirius and Phoebe with twelve destroyers.

HMS Furious had an independent escort of eight destroyers.

The main convoy passed through the Strait of Gibraltar on the night of August 10th1942. At the same time a diversionary convoy left from Port Said in Egypt and another from Haifa in, what was then Palestine, but were planned to turn back the next day. The cruisers and destroyers were topped up with fuel next day from RFA tankers accompanying the fleet, to avoid depleting the stocks at Malta on arrival. 

The convoy was soon under surveillance by German JU88s who were too high for the fighters from the carriers to attack. The German High Command thought at first, that the convoy was an invasion fleet for North Africa 

On the 11th, the carrier HMS Furious launched 38 aircraft which were flown to Malta some 550miles away, only one failed to arrive. She then returned to Gibraltar with a destroyer escort. One of the escort destroyers, HMS Wolverine on the 12th, rammed and sank the Italian submarine Dagabur that threatened the carrier but was severely damaged herself.

Unfortunately that same day, the carrier, HMS Eagle was hit by four torpedoes and sunk, with 12 hurricanes still aboard, by the German submarine U73, which reduced the air cover available to the convoy, her four Sea Hurricanes that were in the air at the time, landed on HMS Victorious. Survivors were rescued by HMS Lookout, Laforey and the tug Jaunty. The attacks continued the next day when the cruiser HMS Cairo was hit by a torpedo from the Italian submarine Axum, although the Italian submarine Dessie claimed to have fired the torpedoes as well, which blew off the stern of HMS Cairo, which had to be scuttled.

HMS Nigeria, that was guarding the Port column of the convoy, was also torpedoed just before eight that evening, by the Italian submarine Axum. She was hit on the port side just alongside the forward funnel, flooding one of the boiler rooms which caused her to list and for fifteen minutes was out of control. The Flag was transferred to the destroyer HMS Ashanti

The list was corrected but she had to leave the convoy, finally steaming into Gibraltar at two in the morning on the 15th under her own steam, escorted by the destroyers Ledbury, Bicester, Wilton and Derwent

During the night, an Italian cruiser force with 17 destroyers left Cagliari to attack the convoy, however Enigma intercepts learned of the sailing and sent an unencrypted message to a non-existent bomber squadron of B24s to attack the fleet. Since the Italians were short of aircraft and fuel there was no air cover for the cruisers, and the Germans would not help, made them head back to their base. The fleet was intercepted by the submarine HMS Unbroken who hit two cruisers with torpedoes, both were badly damaged. The Bolzano was hit in the fuel tank and was beached, the Muzio Attendolo lost a large portion of her bow and was under repair in Naples when she was again attacked by US B24s based in Egypt. During the attack the Muzo Attendolo was again damaged by bombs, set on fire and sank at her moorings. Neither ship took any part in action again.

Stand by your Beds – Part 2

in Features

Based on
“Standing Orders in the Garrison of Gibraltar 1803”

Most of us of a certain age will remember the ridiculous lengths to which we were made to go in preparing our beds, boots and equipment for inspection to please overzealous, tradition bound officers and NCO’s in the Gibraltar Defence Force, now The Royal Gibraltar Regiment. Many evenings were spent in burnishing our boot toecaps into mirrors and polishing our cap badges, buttons and brasses, only to be criticizes by some little napoleon for having a spot on the webbing, or a blanket not quite folded to the correct thickness.

But, if you think this was ridiculous give a thought to our predecessors in the same boat. 

In the barracks, each room was approximately 18 x 36 feet and would accommodate nineteen man. Lack of space in some cases made it necessary to provide folding beds. In this area the men would also eat their meals and spend their off duty time when not in town. 

Each man would be issued with a straw mattress, a box for his personal articles. Wooden tables, benches, a stove and wood would complete the barrack room. His personal uniform and accoutrements are listed below.    

Following are some of the “Standing Orders“ in the Garrison of Gibraltar in 1803 during the Governorship of the Duke of Kent. 

here is a list of items and how they are to be marked. 

With the number of the battalion and regiment and numbered consecutively from 1 to 1000, or whatever the establishment may be. Thus: “1 Bn. 24th. Regt. 297.”

The hilts of swords and their scabbards:

Ditto.

Bayonets, Scabbards, Rammers, Nipple Wrenches, and Muzzle Stoppers:

Marked with consecutive numbers only. Marks on bayonet scabbard to be on button and not on the brass mouth-piece.

(All letters and numbers are to be ENGRAVED, and in no case punched or stamped on the arms (W.O. Cir. 582, 21st April 1860).

All articles of clothing 

To be marked with the number and battalion of the regiment, and also the name and number of the wearer.

Tunic

Marked with white paint, inside across the middle of the back.

Trousers 

With black paint on the waistband.

Boots and Shoes 

Marked by a branding iron with the number of the regiment and the regimental number of the wearer; the former on the underside of the peak and the latter inside the upper leather.

Greatcoats

Marked inside the middle of the back with number or designation of regiment and also with the regimental number and name of the wearer marked with white paint.

All the following articles are to be marked with the number or appellation of the regiment, the owner’s name and number and the date of delivery, before it is issued from the quartermaster’s store:

Knapsacks 

Regimental number in Arabic numerals, painted in white in the centre of the back. Number plates are to be furnished upon application.

linen and woollen articles 

Marks written on them in indelible ink.

Knives, Forks, Spoons, Razors

Marks to be engraved.

Canteens and Squad Bags 

Marked with paint. Cutting, punching or branding forbidden.

Belts, pouches and slings

Marked with number of regiment, battalion or corps and with date of issue on inside or back.

Blanket 

Field service for men (rather than horses); grey; six foot 2 inches by 5 feet; weight, 3 lbs 12 ounces.

Accoutrements and appointments

Sgts. and Rank and File

• Pouches with swivel links

• Belts, pouch, complete

• Belts, waist

• Frogs, sliding, with buckles and straps

• Carbine slings

• Plates for waist belts

Greatcoats

For the Royal Artillery will be furnished at the public expense to all Non-commissioned Officers and Men. Coats for Sergeants shall be furnished without cuffs and Collars, which are to be added at the headquarters of each corps and shall be made of the same quality and colour of the facings of the corps. Chevrons on the right sleeve may be added at head quarters to the great coats of Sergeants and Corporals. 

list of necessaries for the royal artillery

• 1 Canvas bag and hook

• 1 Canteen cover

• 2 Flannel shirts

• 1 Shaving bag

• 1 Forage cap

• 3 cotton shirts

• 1 Tin blacking

• 1 Large comb

• 1 Sponge

• 1 Pair boots

• 1 Pair leather gloves

• 1 Spoon

• 1 Pair Braces

• 1 Holdall

• 1 Stock

• 1 Knapsack complete

• 1 Clothes brush

• 1 Fatigue jacket

• 1 Shaving brush

• 1 Pocket knife

• 1 Great coat strap (pair)

• 2 Shoe brushes

• 1 Pillow case

• 1 Plume case

• 2 towels

• 1 Canteen

• 1 Razor and case

• 1 Pair fatigue trousers

• 1 Button stick

• 1 Button brush 

• 3 Pairs woollen stockings

• 1 Hair brush

• 1 Knife and fork

• 1 Canteen strap 

Kits will be furnished upon requisition addressed to the Secretary of State for War. They will be supplied complete, with the exception of the boots, fatigue jackets and trousers. The boots will be furnished in sizes. The fatigue jackets and trousers will be issued in materials, in order that they may be made up at the Depots and fitted to the recruit.

Because desertion was endemic, troops were not allowed to retain their civilian clothes which would make them stand out if they deserted, however in places like Gibraltar where troops outnumbered the civilian population, the opposite would be more likely.

Pay Scales

In order to get some idea of the money available to a soldier the following is provided based on 1861 pay scales and using a factor of 79 provided by the Bank of England.

A Sapper in the Royal Engineers would receive £22 per annum, which is approximately £4.76 per day less stoppages, a Corporal would get £40 which is £8.66 per day. A sergeant was on £52 which is equivalent to £11.25 per day. 

A Lieutenant however earned £125 per annum which is £27.05, a Captain £330, or £71.42. The officers however were mostly recruited from well to do families and did not depend o their wages entirely, especially in view of the life style they were expected to maintain. Furthermore they were expected to supply their own uniforms. There were also many scams available to the officers to profit from purchasing uniforms and goods for the regiment. Even the Governors were not beyond making a profit form their position of power.

In civilian life, a labourer was expected to earn £35 or £7.50 per day. 

In order to earn a pension, a soldier had to serve twenty one years and even with a perfectly clean record could only expect to receive £18.50 a year or £1461.50 in today’s money. Unless the veteran had a skill he would be force to seek charity to survive.

i
Officers usually wore their hair short and used a powdered wig, but the troops could not afford this luxury and wore their hair long. 

iii
Powder was either flour or chalk. During the siege General Eliott forbid the use of flour for this purpose due to the shortage of food.

iii
Tallow was the usual grease used. This was usually the fat from mutton or beef.

iv 
What happens when it rains? One can imagine the mess running down their faces during the parade.


In 1795, Parliament enacted a tax which required all those wishing to powder their hair to obtain a certificate from the Stamp Office at he cost of one guinea. There were some exceptions such as non commissioned officers and other ranks. Very few people complied and the act was repealed in 1869. 

iv This is an 1860 standing order.

DID YOU KNOW?

in History Insight
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The story behind some of Gibraltar’s stamps

In 1967, the Post Office issued a set of stamps depicting ships that had connections to Gibraltar. The 2d stamp showed HMS Carmania. How many of us ever wondered what the connection was? Most of the other stamps were well known ships, such as HMS Hood, Mary Celeste and others, but what about the Carmania. What was a White Star liner doing with a prefix of HMS.

This is her story.

As the Sabre rattling in Europe reached its crescendo, Germany began to convert some of her merchant ships into armed cruisers in order to lull unsuspecting cargo ships into a trap.

Britain, not to be outdone, did the same. One of these conversions was the White Star Liner Carmania. This 19,524ton liner was fitted with eight 4.7inch guns on reinforced deck and fitted with a splinter shield. She was repainted grey to disguise her. 

She sailed from Liverpool on the 15th of August 1914 under Captain Grant RN but Captain Barr RNR., the original Cunard captain remained on board. They were to patrol the area off Northern Ireland, but on the 19th she was ordered to Shell Bay, Bermuda where she arrived about the 24th of that same month. The Admiralty had intercepted an encoded message to Berlin which they were unable to read but were able to establish that it originated from the German gunboat SMS Elber. The Admiralty feared that the Germans were attempting to disrupt the sea route round Cape of Good Hope, a strategically important life line to and from the east. The Carmania was ordered into the South Atlantic as a store ship, presumably for other warships in the area. On the 29th of August she left Bermuda and headed south to meet a British fleet that was patrolling the coast of Venezuela. The Admiralty intercepted a further communication which indicated that the Cap Trafalgar, under Korvettenkapitan Julius Wirth, along with the cruiser Dresden and Komprinz Wilhem were due to meet around the Trinidade Islands, off the coast of Brazil.

On the 11th of September the Carmania was ordered to investigate and report any findings to HMS Bristol which was part of a fleet patrolling in the southern Caribbean. Captain Grant and Barr conferred and decided that they should disguise their ship and the decision was made to add a third funnel. This was made up of light wood and fitted en route.

Some German ships were caught well away from the Fatherland when war was declared and these were deployed to some remote island bases set up to act as or maintain armed cruisers. One of these bases was on the Ilhe do Trinidade, part of the Martim Vaz archipelago, some 1100km south east of Rio do Janeiro and belonging to Brazil. This island was British from 1890 to 1896 and was known as South Trinidad.

The Cap Trafalgar was a Hamburg South America liner that was in South America at the time that war broke out under Captain Langerhans.

She was told to stay in Buenos Aires, where she had been since the 2nd of August, and await further orders. One of the German ships in Buenos Aires was told to run the gauntlet of British warships to carry reservists and volunteers to Germany. Captain Langerhans of the Cap Trafalgar, lost 150 of his crew this way, including the chief cook, four officers, his personal servant and the ships ornithologist. He however called on the patriotism of the orchestra and persuaded them to stay and they were employed as stokers in the boiler rooms. The German Admiralty were under the impression that the Cap Trafalgar had secretly loaded guns in Hamburg, and gave orders for the ship to load up with  coal and provisions and head out to sea and convert into an armed cruiser. In fact there was only a rifle and pistol on board.  When they realised their mistake she was ordered without delay to Trinidade Island, some 1300miles NNE of Buenos Aires where she would be met by ships that would provide the arms and ammunition she required. The remaining problem was her silhouette which would be recognised by an enemy ship. Fortunately, one of her three funnels was only a ventilator shaft and not connected to the boiler room. The captain had this removed, the life boats painted white, extended the bridge using light wooden material and fabricated a red ensign and a Cunard house flag with the intention of disguising itself as the Carmania. However he refused to change the name of the ship on the hull as sailors consider this bad luck.

When she arrived at Trinidade, the gunboat SMS Eber, under Captain Julius Wirth, was waiting for her with orders to transfer his guns and crew to the Cap Trafalgar and to take command of the armed cruiser. The Elbe transferred two 105mm guns and six  heavy machine guns to the cruiser. After some difficulty, the guns were installed. The Captain realised that, with only 6500m range, he would be easily outgunned by any warship and to bring the machine guns into range would be suicidal. 

 On the 14th of September at about 11am, they sighted the Carmania, the two colliers were hastily cast off and they each made off in separate directions, the Captain of the Carmania saw the Cap Trafalgar appearing from behind the island and heading in a N.N.W. direction. The Carmania was not sure what ship they had intercepted and once her adversary was within range, fired a shot across her bows and called for the Cap Trafalgar to identify herself. At first the German cruiser appeared to be fleeing but it was obvious that she was looking for sea room but soon, seeing the British flag turned and at about 6900m both vessels commenced firing. The Cap Trafalgar was armed with 4in guns and Pom Poms, a multiple barrelled gun firing 37 or 40mm shells. The crew of 423 were well trained naval mariners. 

At first the shot from the Cap Trafalgar was high but as they closed, their shells began to take effect. The second shot took away the radio mast, the third smashed one of the guns. Further shells hit the Carmania setting fire to the forebridge and putting the fire fighting water mains out of action making it impossible to bring the fire under control. Gradually the heavier guns of the Carmania began to take effect, one of her shells penetrated the German’s “Summer Garden” sending shards and splinters everywhere, starting small fires and killing the helmsman. The ship veered to port but the Captain leapt over and brought the ship back on course.  The fire was seen to have taken hold of the German cruiser. The false bridge was on fire, the smoke making it difficult for the gun crews to see their target. 

Captain Grant saw the Cap Trafalgar’s manoeuvres and calculated that were trying to get close to use their heavy machine guns and then attempt to board. He turned the Carmania to Starboard and ordered the gunners to concentrate on the hull below the waterline. Two shells hit the ship’s starboard side, one of them penetrating one of the ship’s bulkheads below the waterline which flooded one of the coal bunkers, and entering the engine room. Further shells hit the bows and damaged the forward coal bunker. She began to list to port. The engineer, Carl Rieck, flooded tanks on the starboard side in an attempt to level the ship, unfortunately Wirth decided to turn sharply to starboard at the same time in an attempt to follow the Carmania which caused even more water to enter the ship. Seeing the problem he changed course veering away from the British ship. After a fierce exchange of fire lasting one hour and forty minutes, the Cap Trafalgar was seen to be listing to starboard. The wounded ship turned and tried to escape but the list increased until her engines could no longer cope. With her ensign still flying, her head began to sink and explosions rent her decks, probably from air trapped below decks. With her propeller still turning she sank into the Atlantic. The Carmania’s bridge was burning out of control with no means of quenching the flames. There was no way she could go to the rescue of the Cap Trafalgar crew in her condition. Fortunately the ship had been stripped of all wooden fittings from the numerous cabins and other areas, where previously, peacetime passengers had spent the cruise in luxury. This had been done by Captain Barr during the commissioning of the ship as an armed cruiser and this forethought saved the ship.  

Two midshipmen were recommended for their bravery when, during the fire, had entered the forebridge to rescue the compass and some of the burning charts and a partially burned code book. The fire burned itself out without spreading but the Captain found himself without an effective compass, no charts of the area, no chronometer or sextant and as the steering on the bridge was unusable, the after wheel had to be manned and orders passed by runner. There was no engine room telegraph so orders were passed through the engine room skylight using a whistle.

A sextant was discovered in one of the cabins and the rescued compass was set up on a feather pillow well above the deck to reduce the vibration and the effect of the iron ship on the magnetic compass. With this they were able to get under way with some semblance of confidence. The Carmania sent a signal which was picked up and met by HMS Bristol and then steamed 600 north to the Islands of Abrolhos, off Espirito Santo, Brazil,  Here she was patched up and made seaworthy with the help of the navy ships there. After a few days HMS Cornwall shadowed the Carmania across the Atlantic to Gibraltar. Here she entered dry dock at the end of September where she was repaired. The 380 holes were patched and by the 14th of November she was ready to resume her duties.

During the action, the Carmania received seventy three hits. The bridge was destroyed and two shots hit her in the hull. There were a total of 380 holes to be repaired in Gibraltar. This would be a 1914 version of HMS Penelope in 1942.  All told she suffered nine dead and a number of wounded.

As the Cap Trafalgar sunk, the collier Eleonore Woermann recovered her life boats with 279 survivors. Of these there were 66 wounded that were cared for at the German Hospital in Buenos Aires. Among the 144 dead was the Captain. As the Cap Trafalgar Sank, the crew of the collier joined with the Cap Trafalgar’s crew singing the patriotic song “Soltzweb die Flagge schwarzweiss – rot”  The crew were taken to Buenos Aires where they were interned on the Island of Martin Garcia in the River Plate estuary, known locally as “THE GIBRALTAR OF LA PLATA.”

This island is 3km off the coast of Uruguay and 46km from Buenos Aires and was used by the Argentineans as a prison and naval base. Today it is a National Park jointly managed by both countries but still owned by Argentina.

By the end of the war, thirteen officers and one hundred and twenty sailors had escaped, five had died. In 1919 the remaining four officers and one hundred and eight sailors and others were due to be repatriated on Dutch vessels although some requested permission to join the Hamburg – South America Line, whilst others were employed by Siemens locally. The ships doctor, Dr.Violet remained behind and had been working in the German Hospital in Buenos Aires from 1915. 

The British crew were awarded a total pf £250,000 in prize money. The two captains were awarded the Order of the Bath, Third Class, and the First Officer was also decorated.

Article supplied by History Society Gibraltar. Email: historysocietygibraltar@hotmail.com

The Last Straw

in History Insight

The Story Of Two Ships

Being sunk during a war is a tragedy at the best of times, but having survived only to be sunk at the last moment is doubly unfortunate. These are the stories of two ships. 

The loss of life at sea in both World Wars was high. Submarines came into their own in the 1914-1918 war. From the outset they extracted a heavy toll in life and material on Britain who depended on sea transport to maintain the war and feed its population which made it more vulnerable to attack at sea than the Axis who was mainly dependent on land networks. The British Empire was the main source of food and material until the United States came to her assistance. In the First war, aircraft played no part of any significance in the protection of shipping and submarine detection was non-existent. However the range of these underwater menaces was limited at first which allowed the defenders to concentrate their efforts more effectively. This was not the case in the Second World War, but fortunately sonar gradually improved, and intelligence helped to mitigate the effect of the unseen attackers.

The mentality of the Admiralty in World War 1 was still based on the might of the Battleship. Vast sums of money were spent on these monsters by all sides, even those not involved. These relatively slow and cumbersome beasts were an ideal target for submarines, but their prime target. This was the lifeline to Britain, consisting of slow lumbering cargo ships loaded to the Plimsol Line with food, fuel and munitions. The first story is about a battleship. HMS Britannia was launched on December 10th 1904 and commissioned nine months later. She was a pre-dreadnaught and by 1908 she was already made redundant by HMS Dreadnought. Britannia was one of eight ships in the class and served her first commission in the Mediterranean Fleet, joining the Home Fleet in 1906. 

The ship was again attached to the Mediterranean Fleet between 1912-13. In 1914 she returned to the Grand / Channel fleet. Based in Scapa Flow in 1915, was hit by a shell from HMS Africa during en exercise which killed a Marine. The following day she ran aground on a Scottish island where she stayed for three days before being floated off. In 1916 the Britannia was in the Adriatic and Atlantic. In February/March 1917 she underwent a refit in Gibraltar end then joined the 9th Cruiser Squadron Freetown, escorting convoys around West Africa. Following further updating of her 6” guns in Bermuda, Britannia returned to her West African station and escort duties. She was returning to Gibraltar when she was spotted by the German submarine UB-50. On the morning of November 9th 1918 there was a sudden explosion followed shortly afterwards by a second caused by a fire in her 9.2 magazine which set the cordite alight in the magazine.

A torpedo had hit the battleship. Below decks everything was in darkness. Valves used to flood the magazine could not be located. Those that were, were seized and could not be operated. The ship was doomed. A ten degree list to port developed. Here she remained some miles west of Cape Trafalgar. Smoke and toxic fumes from the magazine fire made any attempt to go below decks impossible. Fifty men were either killed or died of toxic gas poison and a further eighty were wounded or suffered from the gasses. 

She remained afloat for three and a half hours, by which time ships from Gibraltar were able to reach her and. rescue all the survivors and dead which were taken to Gibraltar                                         

Two days later the Armistice was signed ending the First World War. The celebrations locally were dampened by the burial of the victim’s at North Front Cemetery. The dead were buried with full military honours. The cortege passed though Main Street on gun carriages draped with the Union Flag along streets lined with military and civilians, bear headed. Only the crunch of the wheels and the steady beat of the military escort broke the silence once the funeral march, played by the band of the United States Navy, had passed by. Large contingents of the French, American, Italian and British navies were represented. The last rites were followed by volleys from the firing parties as the dead were laid to rest.

The next story is of the 9551 ton tanker Regent Lion, built in Sunderland for the CT Bowring Company of London and launched in 1937. Tankers were the prime targets of enemy submarines and for this reason were generally allocated positions in the convoy which provided the maximum protection, if such a thing existed. On February 17th 1945, convoy UGS72 from the United States to Suez was twenty seven mile from Gibraltar when U300 under Fritz Hein, fired four torpedoes at the ships hitting a Liberty Ship, the Michael J Stone and the Regent Lion. The Liberty Ship managed to limp into the Bay under its own steam, even though it was well down by the stern.

The tug HMS Behest took it in tow and brought it into the harbour where it was put into No. l dock and repaired. The fate of the Regent Star was more tragic. She was taken in tow by the Dockyard tug Rollicker and Arctic Ranger but on the 19th she was beached   on Pearl Rock near Punta Carnero and became a total loss. Seven of her crew were lost. The U300 was sunk on February 22nd by depth charges from HMS Recruit. Pincher and Evadne west of Cadiz. These were the last victims of the war in the area before VE day was declared on May 8th 1945.

Article supplied by History Society Gibraltar.Email: historysocietygibraltar@hotmail.com

The other USS Missouri

in Features
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The Phoenicians were known to have had a trading post here as far back as 500BC. 

Many of us of a certain age, will remember watching the battleship USS Missouri  coming into harbour in Gibraltar in the late 40’s early 50’s. Seeing the mud stirred up by her powerful engines as the diminutive tugs fuss around her like Dinky toys as she tries to berth on the south mole during a Levant. In the evening, the Main Street is a sea of white hats, making for the Trocadero or Universal bars where young and often not so young Spanish dancers hammer the stage with their heels while the guitar strums out a flamenco number, the smell of stale beer wafting out of the doors. We youngsters peering through the cracks in the windows boarded up for the show.  

This is not the USS Missouri in this story.

On January 7th 1841 a wooden hulled, side paddle steam frigate was launched from the New York Navy Yard. She was 229 ft long and 40ft wide with a displacement of 3220 tons. Commissioned in 1842, her commander was Captain John Newton. 

Following her rather troublesome trails, she sailed to Washington DC to demonstrate her superiority as a steam driven ship in confined waters. 

Following a long cruise in the Gulf of Mexico, she returned to Washington for a refit before starting a diplomatic mission for the Government.

On the 6th of August 1843, she embarked the Honourable Caleb Cushin, the US Minister to China. His task was to negotiate a commercial treaty with China. Her first port of call was Fayal in the Azores and from there headed to Gibraltar where she arrived on the 25th of August. This was to be the first crossing of the Atlantic by a steam driven warship. Cushin was accorded the usual courtesies due a foreign diplomat but on the evening of the 26th the Engineer working in the store aboard ship, broke a glass container of turpentine which immediately caught fire. This soon spread along the wooden deck and before long the whole ship was ablaze. The British man of war, HMS Malabar in harbour, seeing the blaze afforded as much assistance as it could, rescuing some 200 crewmen who were lucky to have fled the raging inferno. Calib Cushin was able to rescue the documents for the Daoguang Emperor of China which gave him the authority to negotiate with the Chinese. 

The ship continued to burn until 03.20, when the forward magazine blew up and the ship sank to the bottom of the harbour in a cloud of smoke. 

The wreck posed a hazard to navigation so divers were sent down to recover the pieces of the ship one by one out of the shallow waters of the harbour. 

The governor, Robert Wilson, arranged for all the survivors to be cared for in the garrison until they were able to be repatriated.

The US Congress recognised the actions of the Governor of Gibraltar through a Resolution of AppreciationCaleb Cushin was appointed United States Commissioner to China in 1843. The commercial expansion in Asia required that the US have treaties with the main markets in the region. This meant that both China and Japan were the targets of diplomats of all the European and US governments. The Chinese markets had always been a lure to American traders where they had traded since the 1700’s. After the “Opium Wars” in 1842, Britain forced the Chinese authorities to grant it special privileges including the monopoly of Chinese coastal ports. The Americans seeing an opportunity, sent Caleb Cushin on a mission to negotiate a treaty which would allow American ships to use Chinese ports. After the trauma of the fire in Gibraltar, Cushin made his way unaffected by his experience, to China where he presented his credential to the Emperor and by 1844 had negotiated the Treaty of Wang Hiya or Wanghsia. This was the first treaty ever signed between the US and Chinese. It allowed the American merchants the same rights as those forced on the Chinese by the British and was based on the most favoured nation principle. 

The treaty with Japan did not conclude until 1852 – 4 when Perry used the might of the US Navy to force Japan into an agreement along similar lines to the British in China.      

Sources- US Dept of the Navy and US Attorney General website.

Tangier – The Poisoned Chalice

in Features

On a clear night, we can see the lights twinkling in Tangier in the distance across the Strait. Very few realise the turbulent history of this town, which rivals even our own. 

The Phoenicians were known to have had a trading post here as far back as 500BC. 

The Carthaginians were there for a while but were ousted by the Romans in 81BC and known as Tingis. Various Roman factions passed though its gates during the next five hundred years, ending up in the hands of the Julians of the Byzantine Empire. 

In 682AD the Arabs captured the town which then passed to the (Amazigh) Berbers in 707AD. It was from here that the conquest of Spain was launched in 711AD. In 951 Tangier fell to the control of the Umayyad dynasty under the Khlif of Cordoba.

By around 1030 the Almoravids had the upper hand and Tangier returned to the Moroccans. Portugal was anxious to occupy Tangier but numerous attempts failed until 1471 when they finally overcame the Berbers.

Most of us know about The War of the Spanish Succession, but how many have heard of The War of the Portuguese Succession? The Royalty in Europe has always been a bag of worms. Marriages of convenience were the order of the day. Most of the Rulers were and still are related in one way or another. 

King Sebastian I came to the throne of Portugal at the tender age of three. Various Regents ran the country until 1574 when his great uncle Cardinal Henry of Evora took up the Regency in 1557. In 1568, the King assumed power from the Regency. He soon had the idea of gaining possessions in North Africa. By chance, trouble between factions in Morocco led to Abu Abdhalla Mohammed II seeking asylum in Portugal in 1576. Following a meeting with the deposed Moroccan, he gathered a multi national army of seventeen thousand, many of which were mercenaries, and landed in Morocco where he was joined by six thousand Moors. His forces faced fifty thousand men under Abdul Malik II Saadi at Kasar Al Kibir on August 14th 1578. The Portuguese were soundly beaten, King Sebastian was thought to have died in the battle, however questions have remained as to what happened to him. His body is said to be buried in the Monastery in Belem. Following his death, since Sebastian never married, Cardinal Henry renounced the Cloth and became King and sought to marry in order to continue the Avis destiny. However, The Spanish King Felipe II convinced the Pope to refuse the Cardinal permission to leave the clergy.  Henry died in 1580. without issue. 

Antonio Prior de Crato, the illegitimate grandson son of the Duke of Beja who had spent all his life in Portugal, declared himself King on July 24th with the support of many of the Portuguese people, but was defeated by his rival the Duke of Alba at the battle of Alcantara on August 25th and claimed the throne on behalf of Felipe II of Spain who was the eldest grandchild from the female line of his mother Isabella of Portugal. 

As a result of this victory, the Iberian Union was agreed in 1580 where Spain and Portugal became joined under the Spanish throne. This meant that Tangier became a Spanish colony until Portugal regained its independence in 1656.

How did England got into the act? Portugal was having difficulty in maintaining its newly gained independence and sought help from England and as part of the bargain

Charles II married Catherine de Braganza in 1661 and Tangier, among other territories, passed to England as part of her dowry. England provided troops to the Portuguese. 

The Admiral, Earl of Sandwich was sent out to take possession of Tangier with a small naval occupation force.   

Charles made the Earl of Peterborough Governor and Captain-General on the 6th of September 1661. In January 1662, the 2nd Regiment of Foot or Tangier Regiment arrived, followed shortly after by further troops from Dunkirk and Flanders in the new colony but found that the town was under constant attack from the Berbers. The it was run down and in ruin. 

It soon became apparent that the harbour was unsafe due to the close proximity of the Moors who took every opportunity to attack any shipping in the port. Even the town was not secure. All the Portuguese residents left leaving only the English military families in the town. Further cause for concern was the fact that the harbour could not handle the British warships due to the water depth and there was little protection from the rough sea caused by the Easterly wind.

Work started in November to build a mole which was to be fortified. A survey in 1676 showed that there were 2225 inhabitants all of whom were military and their families. The cost of maintaining the garrison was estimated at £140,000 (7m in today’s money) per annum. 

Sultan Mulay Ismail with his compatriot in Fez continued to harass the garrison which was forced to increase its strength to combat the threat. 

In 1680, the Royal Scots, 2nd Tangier Regiment, King’s Battalion formed from the Grenadier and Coldstream Guards arrived.

Now having the strength in number, the English attacked the Moors who had laid siege and captured a portion of the town

The defences were constantly being improved to combat the increasing attacks by the Moroccans. The cost of maintaining this useless colony was causing concern in Parliament. Expenditure was now reaching a total of £2.000,000 (£100,000,000). 

Religious concerns were also raised as mainly Irish and Catholic troops were stationed in Tangier. Fear of a Catholic uprising in England raised the suspicion that Charles was accumulating a catholic army in Tangier. The fact that his wife was an ardent Catholic did not help. 

Pressure was building up for the King to relinquish Tangier. Finally in 1683 Admiral Lord Dartmouth was given secret instructions to evacuate the colony.

The troops reduced the fortifications to rubble, destroyed the newly constructed mole  which was completed by February 1684. 

The Admiral was able to buy the release of some forty military captives from the Moors before he left. 

In 1844 the French attacked tangier by sea and the Spanish invaded Morocco in 1860. Britain was alarmed at what she saw as a threat to her dominance over the Strait. A Franco – Spanish agreement in 1902 made Tangier a separate international administration. This was followed by an Anglo – French agreement on 1904 which stipulated that the town would have a special status which was confirmed by the Algeciras Conference in 1906. From this the French, Spanish and British became joint Administrators. Some modifications were proposed in 1914 but due to the war they were not ratified until 1923. Five years further on more recommendations were proposed in which five countries formed the administration. 

In 1940, with the fall of France, Spain occupied Tangier but were made to withdraw in 1945 when the international administration was reintroduced. The United States and Italy were allowed to join at this time. This status remained until Morocco gained its independence in 1956.

Article supplied by
History Society Gibraltar.
Email: historysocietygibraltar@hotmail.com

USS Ophir – The Burning Question

in Features/History Insight

Many of us remember the devastating explosion which rocked Gibraltar in April 1951 when the British ammunition ship Bedenham exploded on the Gun Wharf. A similar incident nearly occurred in 1918 when US navy cargo ship the USS Ophir returned to Gibraltar on fire carrying a flammable cargo.

The USS Ophir was built by the Dutch Kon. Masts de Schelde in Flushing in 1904. This 8905 ton cargo passenger ship was operated by the Rotterdamsche Lloyd Line on the Pacific run. The ship was seized in Hawaii by customs officials under a Presidential Proclamation of the 20th of March 1918 and was turned over to the US Navy on the 21st of March 1918 and commissioned on the 25th on that month as a NOTS (Navy Overseas Transportation Service) under the command of Lt. Cdr. M P Nash USNRF (US Navy Reserve Force). 

The Ophir left port on the 2nd of April heading for New York where she arrived on May 14th. Leaving again in the company of four other ships on the 1st of June. They carried sailors and tugboat men, 500 mail sacks and other cargo, heading for La Pallance in France, to supply the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) there.  She arrived on June 7th    (GHQ AEF France report dated June 9th) and set sail again for Verdun on the 27th and then returned to New York. The General Headquarters AEF shows the Ophir arriving in New York on July 30th. She continued to operate on this sector and on the 25th of October set out for Gibraltar and onward to the southern French ports. The Ophir arrived in Gibraltar on November 8th. Soon after sailing for Marseille she caught fire and turned back to Gibraltar. In the afternoon of the 10th a telephone call was received by the Senior Naval Officer (SNO) in the Gibraltar Dockyard which stated that the Ophir was on fire and would be arriving about 1500hrs. A berth was prepared on the North Mole. The question of tugs was raised but was informed that the HM Tug Crocodile, which had the necessary pumping equipment, was laid up and only the Marsden and Heroine were available with limited pumping capacity but that the Kings Harbour Master and Commander Remington had the matter in hand. At 1930hrs the ship was reported to be rounding Europa Point. The SNO boarded the vessel on arrival and was informed by the Captain that he thought the fire was in No2 lower hold which held some 500 tons of coal. The Ophir was anchored off North Mole. The fire was kept under control during the night using the ship’s firefighting equipment. At 1930 hrs on the 11th an explosion blew off the hatches of No2 hold and the ship continued burning furiously. The water from the fire hoses had passed from the hold into the boiler room and was in danger of extinguishing the furnaces. The SNO was on board when the Captain requested that the ship be beached. This was agreed and the Pilot, Pelizza, took the ship into the shallows and she was run aground in four and a half fathoms. The fire continued, the boilers were put out of action and the Ophir burned out with all the hold full of water. The 11th of November 1818, being the day that the Armistice was signed which ended the First World War. 

Two sailors perished in the fire, they were Guy Alston Comstock, an Engineman, 2nd Class of the USNRF and Oscar Wilson, Engineman 1st Class USNRF. Both these sailors were buried at the North Front Cemetery on the 16th of November. The bodies were repatriated to the United States on the 3rd of June 1919.

Her cargo consisted of drums of Aviation Oil, which in those days was probably of castor oil base and highly flammable. Reports in the US media talk of shell holes but there is no evidence that she carried ammunition. She also carried a number of ambulances, coal and provisions, no doubt for the troops at her original destination. 

The Crocodile, obviously now repaired, started to pump out the holds and in a report from the Captain of the Port, dated 18th January 1919, the fore hold was now dry and No 2 hold had three feet of water and the after hold was reduced to about the same level. Tests were being carried out to see if the ship could be pumped dry without damage. The hull seemed watertight but some concern was raised over the after bulkhead. The iron deck aft of the dining saloon on the port side was split right across and it was hoped this was not a structural failure. A US destroyer was anchored just north of the Ophir and keeping an eye on developments. For security reasons, the night patrol was ordered to make several tours around the ship while on patrol. An inventory had been taken of everything on the ship including all brass and copper fittings and orders given that the correct night lights should be on during darkness. Nevertheless by the 4th of December the Captain of the Port reported that fittings had been stolen from the ship. Captain Nash was lodged with the American Consul while the ship was being raised. Captain Asserson USN was in Gibraltar as part of the diplomatic team and was involved in the decision to raise the Ophir, which was reported to the Colonial Secretary on January 18th 1919.  The US Navy survivors were repatriated and a team was sent to Gibraltar to refloat and repair the vessel. 

No doubt the provisions were spoiled and probably dumped at sea under the sanitary inspector’s control. The vehicles had been under 16ft of water but the five Quad trucks were salvaged and sold to Alexander Ivison of Cadiz under the authority of US Base 9, the Patrol Squadron based in Gibraltar on the 22nd of May 1919. The US media reported that the vessel was under water for five months but this does not appear to be the case as she was pumped dry within weeks.

Only enough work was done to make her able to sail back to the United States. A skeleton crew of six officers and sixty eight men were sent out to bring the ship back

On the 25th of November 1920, she set sail still full of holes and hardly seaworthy. Incredibly, despite her condition, eight wives of enlisted men were permitted to sail with the ship. Only three of her boilers were operational and two days out of the Azores, they broke down and she was given a tow by the USS Bob-O-Link off Bermuda. About 100 miles off Cape Henry, they hit a severe storm and the tow rope parted. For thirty six hours the Ophir drifted in 100 mile an hour wind and heavy seas but finally the storm abated and she was able to get under way on her own, arriving in Norfolk, Virginia on the 9th of January 1920. The Ophir was decommissioned and turned over to the War Department on the 16th of January 1920.

It is curious to note that there is no reference to this incident in the Gibraltar Chronicle, and were it not for the records of the North Front Cemetery and the official Government correspondence, there would be doubt as to whether it ever happened. The fact that it occurred on the 11th of November 1918, the day that the armistice was declared, which ended the First World War, might account for the lack of interest. Research is still going on to establish the details of how the vessel was raised by the US Navy.

WE WISH TO THANK THE DIRECTOR OF THE US NAVAL HISTORICAL CENTER WASHINGTON FOR HIS ASSISTANCE IN THE RESEARCH INTO THIS INCIDENT AND THE USE OF THE PHOTOGRAPHS. ALSO THE GIBRALTAR GOVERNMENT ARCHIVES FOR ACCESS TO THE GOVERNMENT PAPERS.

Article supplied by History Society Gibraltar.
Email: historysocietygibraltar@hotmail.com

The story of HMS Penelope

in Culture Insight/Features/History Insight
HMS Penelope arriving in Gibraltar showing the “peppered” hull
HMS Penelope arriving in Gibraltar showing the “peppered” hull

Based on the Captain’s report. My thanks to Mike Bee of the HMS Penelope Association for his assistance

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