- Date, John C., RANVR (Rtd)
- History - WW1
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- December 1993 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
But the inevitable was to happen – at approximately 1945, while at a reduced speed of 13½ knots and heading into the full fury of the sea an explosion occurred in the fo’c’sle and within 20 minutes the cruiser had sunk in deep water.
A few free floating Carley rafts offered the only chance of survival, for even people on shore who had witnessed the explosion, the sound of which was carried their way by the now north-westerly winds, were powerless to render assistance in the teeth of the angry gale, which was hurling great breakers over the foreshore. The few survivors and many bodies, eventually being blown ashore in an area called the Bay of Skaill.
So, from the unknown at the time, the most extravagant conjecture tended to conceal the truth from the public, but the facts as later became known, are perfectly straightforward and simple.
Indeed, it was only when the German official history of the War became available that it was known, that prior to the Battle of Jutland, the submarine U75 had laid 22 moored mines on the west coast of the Orkneys, the route now chosen for the HAMPSHIRE, on false information that men-of-war were making use of the route when actually it was only being used by auxiliary vessels.
Nevertheless, this was the minefield that caused the disaster, and it went on to claim another victim in the LAUREL CROWN, which was blown to fragments while later sweeping near the sunken HAMPSHIRE.
All through the succeeding years many suppositions have been put forward of this unfortunate event.
One encyclopaedia gives the HAMPSHIRE’S fate as `torpedoed’ and another by `mine’ and yet another `ran into bad weather and sank with all hands’.
An oft-repeated theory was sabotage – internal explosion from a timed device.
Legends abounded of Lord Kitchener’s whereabouts `in Russia directing a new offensive’, ‘picked up by a submarine and taken prisoner’, appearances reported in Cairo, Cyprus, Rome and Washington. Considerable credence was given to the report of his body being prepared for a funeral in Norway!
Amid all the hysteria surrounding his disappearance, one fact was crystal clear, Germany knew of his planned mission to Russia. In May 1916 it was a common topic and freely discussed in the British Boat Club in Petrograd and in Russian Court circles and from there undoubtedly passed through the German espionage system. Information from the German ‘Abwehr’ after the war revealed that news of Kitchener’s mission had also come from a German agent who obtained it ‘in a Turkish baths establishment in London‘.
And so the stories go on, spurious of the true facts.
Lord Kitchener was originally to be conveyed on the 10th Cruiser Squadron armed cruiser ALSATIAN, but at the last moment this order was cancelled, and the cruiser HAMPSHIRE substituted. Further, the route for the HAMPSHIRE was not selected until approximately one hour before she sailed.
However, in an interesting side report it has been alleged that there was a secret attempt to obtain bullion and documents from HAMPSHIRE by the shadowy arms dealer, Sir Basil Zaharoff. An Associated Press story from New York on 26th April, 1933 mentioned that fifteen thousand pounds value of gold had been removed from the old cruiser. The Admiralty stated that it had “no knowledge of any expedition to salvage HAMPSHIRE, which had long since been declared an official war grave. Nevertheless, one of the three diving experts said to have been involved in this operation was an Australian named Costello, who had long experience of difficult salvage operations. Another diver was Charles Courtney, a master locksmith. Some details of the project are mentioned in his book Unlocking Adventure published in 1951.
Taking into account the wholesale slaughter of World War I, no single death so profoundly shocked the British people, including those in the `Empire’ nations, or lowered the morale as did the loss in mysterious circumstances, as seemed at the time, of the man whose face stared at them from the recruiting posters.
As happened in a later stage with the assassination of a US President, many people were able to identify precisely what they were doing on 5th June, 1916 “the day Lord Kitchener was lost”.