Mid afternoon on the 25th September 1908 the Royal Navy ‘s warship H.M.S Gladiator, of some 6,000 tons was slowly steaming up the Solent at a reported 3 knots, the viability was poor and it was snowing, sea state was also high. Unknown to the captain on board Gladiator, the American liner SS. St Paul of some 12,000 tons was outward bound from Southampton en route to America. H.M.S.Gladiator
Soldiers at Fort Victoria in nearby Yarmouth who where use to the liners passing down through the narrows by Hurst Castle, heard the liner’s fog horn sounding, almost immediately they heard a second signal from another ship approaching up the Solent. A few minutes later they heard a loud noise and realized that the ships had either collided or one ship had hit some rocks. They were quickly out of their barrack and rushed down to the shore to give any help they could.
S.S. St Paul.
They saw H.M.S. Gladiator slowly come out of the sea mist with a list, the soldier realized that the captain was heading for a nearby by sandbank in an effort to ground the warship. They saw sailors deploying anchor chains in an effort to slow the crippled ship down, they answered their officer’s commands without any thought for their own safety. The ship slowly stopped before the sandbank was reached, then slowly capsized, those watching on shore then heard the command “abandon ship”.
.The soldiers saw some of the crew jump into the rough sea and try to swim for the shore, others scrambled up the side of the sloping and listing ship. As the warship slowly capsized water reached the engine room and boilers, they exploded and the ship was enveloped on clouds of steam Those on shore saw two whalers being launch from the ship and ran to help one as it reached the beach. It was found to contain those who were injured and from the sick bay [these were later transferred to the military hospital at Golden Fort which was nearby], the other boat was swept into the nearby Yarmouth harbour, The soldiers watching events on the shore released that that those swimming in the sea were having trouble reaching the shore due to the sea state, they tried relaunching Gladiators whaler, but each time they got the bow pointing out to sea. the waves swung the boat sideways. They then rushed to launch their own boat and found it was being repaired with a plank missing, they managed to make it seaworthy and launched it. They reached those swimming in the sea but the nearest sailors grabbed hold of the oars and the boat became unmanageable and was swept back to the shore this happened eight times, luckily each time with the boat crew and sailors. By this time some of the sailors had been swept farther out to sea, and due the sea state and lack of a suitable boat the soldier’s were unable to rescue them. In was not possible to rescue those that had climbed onto the side of the ship and they had to hang on until ships from Portsmouth arrived.
The person who organizes the beach rescue efforts was a Lance Corporal Crips together with the soldiers for 22nd Company Royal Engineers at Fort Victoria. They were later given a vellum certificate from the Royal Humane Society and there were other awards. It is reported the the soldiers at Fort Victoria were also presented with the captain’s gig from H.M.S.Gladiator and a silver salver in appreciation of they efforts in rescue sailors from the ship. The army also awarded L/Corp. Crisp an increase of six pence per day on his army pension. Another unsung hero of that day was a nearby resident a Mrs Twaddle, who provide blankets and hot tea to those on the beach. There was an interesting sight in Yarmouth for several weeks after the sinking with various branches of the service wearing parts of the other service uniforms due to shortage of equipment.
Later in 1908 L/Corp. Crisp received an army posting to Sierra Leone, however he managed to see the Gladiator raised and towed away before leaving Fort Victoria, as a mark of respect he was rowed across to the mainland in the captain’s gig and was heard to remark “if we had been able to use the boat on the day of the collision we would have saved all the sailors”. L/Corp Crisp served in the army for another nineteen years, retiring in 1927 with the rank of Warrant Officer.
Damage to the Gladiator.
The damage to the Gladiator by the St Paul in the collision, was a gash in the side of the ship some 40 foot by 20 foot penetrating some 12 feet into the ship. The extent of this damage caused the Captain Lumsden to steer the ship towards the shore and try to beach the ship on a sandbank, but the damage was to great and the ship floundered and finished resting on the side of the sand bank. Damage to St Paul was confined to the ship bow and she was able to make her was back to Southampton under her own steam
The work of salvaging the Gladiator, posed many new problems in salvage operations for that period of time, the ship was lying on its side and there was a possibility that it could slide into deeper water. Therefore a scheme had to be devised to stop the ship moving while efforts to re float her took place. The contract to salvage the ship was won by the Liverpool Salvage Association and they appointed Captain Young to be salvage master. The scheme proposed and accepted, was to use shore based steam winches bolted on specially reinforced concrete pads, to which hawsers would be attached to the ship. Underwater framework would be constructed to houses hydraulic rams to retain the ship in position whilst the salvage operation took place. The guns were removed and divers cut away as much of the superstructure as they could, to make the lift easier. The day of the salvage arrived, the underwater rams were activated and positioned against the ships hull, the hawser took up the strain and slowly the ship was raised upright. The next task was to pump out the water and repair the damaged hull so that the warship could be towed away, This took place in October 1908, it is reported that the cost of salvage was £76,000 and the ship was sold for scrap for £7,000.
Captain Young salvage operation master
Salvage of Gladiator under way mid 1908
Royal Navy board of inquiry. At the board of inquiry held in Portsmouth, it was stated that at the time of the collision H.M.S. Gladiator was only travelling at three knots due to prevailing conditions and sounding her fog horn at the correct intervals, however for reasons unknown, the captain ordered the ship to steer to the wrong side of the approaching liner. The board praised the captain for his subsequent actions after the collision in trying to save the ship and sailors lives, also the discipline of his crew. However the board found the captain guilty and he was dismissed his ship on half pay.
Footnote. On the 25th April 1918 SS.St. Paul was in dock in New York having been converted to a troop and awaiting the arrived of a shipment of troops for France. Suddenly and without reason the liner slowly capsized, it was re floated, but the salvage operation was difficult due to location. Why did the ship capsize ten years to the day of the collision in the Solent?
St Paul capsized in New York April 1918.
Source;- County Press archives and other sources.