World War I – HMS Hampshire
A few days after returning from the Battle of Jutland, HMS Hampshire was sunk when she hit a mine off Marwick Head on 5 June 1916. Among those lost was Lord Kitchener, Britain’s Minister of War.
On 5th June 1916 Scapa Flow played host to Field Marshal Lord Kitchener, Minister of War. He was setting off on a goodwill visit to Czar Nicholas II to try to bolster Russian morale and decided to visit Jellicoe and the Grand Fleet, which had fought the Battle of Jutland just a few days before.
He arrived just as a storm was building up, and had lunch with Jellicoe on board HMS Iron Duke. He was keen to complete his mission as quickly as possible and return to his desk before the start of a major battle planned for the Somme on 1st July 1916.
When the gale hit it was blowing from the north-east, so it was decided to abandon the proposed route to the east of Orkney and instead to sail to the west of the islands, under shelter of the high cliffs. This proved to be a fatal decision, as the German submarine U-75 had laid mines in the area a few days before.
Admiral Sir John Jellicoe, Commander-in-Chief of the Grand Fleet, from his 1919 autobiography.
“After lunch conversation turned to the Jutland Battle, and Lord Kitchener displayed much interest in the tactics and the general story of the action.
Lord Kitchener impressed me strongly with the idea that he was working to a time-table, and that he felt that he had not a day to lose. He mentioned three weeks as the limit of his absence, and I expressed astonishment at the programme which he had planned to carry out in the restricted period. He was most anxious not to lose a moment on the sea trip, and asked me more than once what I thought was the shortest time in which the passage could be made.
During the day the weather at Scapa, which had been bad in the morning, gradually became worse, and by the afternoon it was blowing a gale from the north-eastward. It had been originally intended that the Hampshire should take the route which passed up the eastern side of the Orkneys, following the channel ordinarily searched by mine-sweeping vessels as a routine measure; but as the north-easterly gale was causing a heavy sea on that side, mine-sweeping was out of the question, and it was obvious that the escorting destroyers could not face the sea at high speed. I discussed with my Staff which route on the west, or lee, side would be the safest, and finally decided that the Hampshire should pass close in shore, and not take the alternative route passing farther to the westward near Sule Skerry Lighthouse.”
As Kitchener sailed through Hoxa Sound, accompanied by two destroyers, the wind changed direction, blowing in from the north-west. Sailing into the teeth of the gale, HMS Unity and HMS Victor were unable to keep up with the Hampshire and were forced to return to base. Sailing alone, HMS Hampshire struck a mine sometime between 19:45 – 20:00.
The ship took just 15 minutes to sink, with the loss of all but 12 of the crew; 737 men perished in the stormy seas.
Around 200 men left the ship in lifeboats and Carley rafts, but many were killed as the rafts were smashed against the rocks, or died from exposure. In some areas local people were allowed to help, but in other areas many with knowledge of the tides were refused permission to join in the rescue. This led to rumours that the authorities wanted Kitchener dead and would take no risks in case he was rescued.
Over the years various myths have grown up around the sinking. Some claimed sabotage, others that HMS Hampshire was sunk by a bomb planted by the IRA in retaliation for the Easter Uprising. There have also been stories of gold on board, and even that Kitchener did not die, but appeared in Russia under the name of Joseph Stalin.
A memorial was raised to Kitchener on Marwick Head, paid for by public subscription within Orkney, and was opened in 1926. It was restored and a wall of remembrance with all the names of all who were lost was unveiled as part of the centenary commemoration in 2016. HMS Hampshire is now a war grave and diving on the wreck is forbidden.
John Fraser from Feaval, Birsay, was 11 years old when he witnessed the sinking of HMS Hampshire. His memories were recorded by BBC Radio Orkney in the 1980s.
“Early evening we were all inside, and my father went out and returned shortly afterwards saying ‘come and see this big battleship passing in this rough seas’. So we all went out and almost immediately a cloud of dark smoke rose from the water’s edge, followed afterwards by a huge explosion and tongue of flame shot out round the gun turret in front of the foremast, followed by a huge cloud of smoke, yellowish coloured, drifted over Marwick Head in the strong wind.
Immediately they steered her for land, turned her straight in, and we thought ‘Oh, he’s going to beach the ship’, but it was no time ‘till she turned round again, I suppose with the force of the north wind and the heavy sea, turned her end on into the weather. By this time her bows were down in the water and her stern, well, propellers, were clear of the water… and she just slowly went down, and the bows slowly went down until it seemed to us to hit the bottom, and the stern just settled down in the water. In all I think it was just 15 minutes until she disappeared beneath the water.”
Scapa Flow Museum is currently closed for a major refurbishment project, funded by Orkney Islands Council, National Lottery Heritage Fund, Historic Environment Scotland, Highlands and Islands Enterprise, Museums Galleries Scotland, Scottish Natural Heritage and the Orkney LEADER fund. The project includes carrying out essential repairs to Pumphouse No. 1 and building an extension to house a new gallery, visitor facilities and café.
Visitors can virtually explore the buildings and former exhibitions at www.hoydrone.com/museum, a 3600 photo record of the main site museum site.
The Island of Hoy Development Trust website www.hoyorkney.com has a large Wartime Heritage section focusing on the WW2 history of Hoy.