- Wilson, Graham, Warrant Officer Class Two, Australian Intelligence Corps
- History - general, Ship histories and stories
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- December 1997 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
Faced with almost certain destruction if he remained at anchor, Kane was determined to escape from the harbour into the relative safety of the open sea. At his order the Engineering Department worked the engine “red hot” then he slipped his cables and snaked past Vandalia. Unfortunately, the by now flooded, rudderless and engineless Trenton still blocked the passage, only a perilously narrow gap between wreck and the reef. The order to slip had been given at about 0930 and Kane later recorded that it was ‘an anxious moment, for some time, how long I know not, she remained perfectly still, moving neither way, and then gradually drew ahead, pitching tremendously, bow and stern in turns under water.’ When Captain Kane gave the order to slip the anchor, Calliope’s stern was a mere twenty feet from the reefs.
With her engines straining to produce every available pound of steam, Calliope struggled to escape the storm lashed harbour, her heaving boilers barely managing to move her forward at one knot in the teeth of the hurricane. With steerage way barely on, Kane at first doubted his ability to alter course to avoid the sinking Trenton but at the very last moment managed to pass under her stern in a feat of seamanship which excited the admiration of all who watched it. As Calliope inched past Trenton the crew of the stricken American cruiser, in one of those acts of inspired madness which moments of extreme peril sometimes evoke, paused in their desperate labours to loudly cheer the British cruiser, a passionate salute to the skill and daring of one ship and crew from the crew of another ship who doubtless believed themselves to be doomed.
Clawing painfully past Trenton, the British cruiser slowly left the American behind as she steered for the harbour mouth by compass, the driving spray and mist having reduced visibility to a few feet and completely obscuring the harbour mouth. She eventually reached the open sea but was not to know this until next day. During the long painful haul out of the harbour in the face of the storm, it had taken Calliope over two hours to steam a distance of four cables (about 730 meters). `Once outside’, wrote Kane afterwards, `it was nothing but hard steaming; if the engines held out we were safe, if anything went wrong with them we were done for’. Calliope remained under full power from 0930 until about 2000 that night, the ship just making steering way through a haze which reduced visibility to virtually nothing. At 2000 the sea fell slightly, allowing engine power to be reduced. By midday on the seventeenth the storm had reduced in strength to an `ordinary gale’ (Kane’s words) and a brief sight of the sun confirmed that they had indeed escaped the harbour.
Meanwhile, back in the harbour all was chaos. Giving up the struggle against the storm, Captain Schoonmaker of the USS Vandalia attempted to run his ship onto the beach near the deserted Nipsic but at the last moment a huge wave caught the ship’s stern and drove it onto the reef. Her head swung to starboard and she immediately began to fill and settle. As his ship began to go down, Captain Schoonmaker was swept overboard and lost. Some reports say he collapsed from exhaustion, others that he was killed by a deck gun which had broken free. Either way, his body was not recovered until some days later over nine kilometres down the coast.
By 1500, only Trenton and Olga were still afloat, the German ship repeatedly dodging the floundering American. Shortly after, Trenton’s cable finally parted and the ship was driven stern first into the inner basin. At 1600 Olga, out of control, smashed into Trenton’s quarters, first port, then starboard. In a last despairing attempt to save his ship, Kapitan zur See von Ehrhardt managed to beach Olga, miraculously without losing a single life, although one American seaman had been killed on Trenton when Olga had smashed in one of her gun ports.
Trenton continued her rudderless voyage to the shore and lurched into the sunken Vandalia. As she struck fast, lines were thrown across from Trenton to the survivors clinging to Vandalia’s rigging and they were dragged to (comparative) safety aboard the cruiser. In total, 43 members of Vandalia’s crew, including the captain, were lost.