Monday 5 August 2013, 11:00
When you think of the ships sunk during the First World War your mind immediately turns to the torpedoing of vessels like the giant liner Lusitania or the destruction of the British battle cruisers at the Battle of Jutland.
Yet the very first British ship sunk in the war was a small cruiser, mined and sunk on 5 August 1914, the day after the war broke out. She had just taken part in the destruction of a German mine layer – the first German ship to be lost in the conflict - and in a weird twist of fate hit one of the recently-laid enemy mines and quickly went to the bottom.
The ship in question was HMS Amphion, and she had been built at Pembroke Dock in west Wales. Pembroke Dock was the only Royal Naval dockyard ever to exist in Wales and since its inception 100 years before it had produced some of the finest ships in the navy. Battleships, cruisers, gunboats, even royal yachts, Pembroke Dock built them all.
The Amphion was launched on 4 December 1911, designated as a fast scout cruiser. She was intended to work closely with the newly developed and designed destroyers that were then being produced in great numbers for the Royal Navy. These brand new and revolutionary ships were intended to work either as fleet escorts or as individual attack craft.
On 5 August 1914 the Amphion, commanded by Captain Cecil H Fox, was patrolling with destroyers of the 3rd Flotilla, engaged in a sweep across the North Sea towards Heligoland Bight.
Early in the morning, the former Hamburg-Holland ferry Konigin Luise was spotted. She had been converted into a mine layer and left port on 4 August, prior to the declaration of war. A day later she was in the process of dropping mines off the Thames Estuary.
Two of the 3rd Flotilla destroyers, Lance and Landrail, gave chase and, once in range, opened fire on the enemy ship.
The Amphion - a ship that had recently won the Fleet Gunnery Prize – soon came up and added her heavier firepower to the assault. It was not long before the Konigin Luise was badly hit and soon she rolled over onto her side and sank.
Forty six of her crew were rescued, 21 of them by the Amphion. The Royal Navy had secured its first victory of the war.
There then occurred a strange interlude when another ship suddenly came into view. This was the liner St Petersburg, carrying the German ambassador and his staff back home, following the outbreak of hostilities.
Because of the task on which she was engaged, the St Petersburg was entitled to diplomatic immunity but the destroyer captains, their blood up, immediately attacked. Signals from the Amphion were ignored and Capt Fox was obliged to put his ship between the destroyers and the liner to stop the firing.
Then, at 6.45am, disaster struck when the Amphion ploughed into one of the mines so recently laid by the Konigin Luise. The explosion was loud, powerful and destructive. The ship's back was broken and all of the forward gun crew were killed. The explosion also destroyed the bridge, burning and injuring many of the men working there.
Many of the Amphion's crew were at breakfast in their mess room and dozens of men were killed before they knew what was happening. By a strange twist of fate, the recently rescued German sailors were also in the mess room. Nineteen of them perished in the disaster.
The Amphion was soon down by the bows and Capt Fox had no alternative but to order "Abandon ship." There was no panic and within 15 minutes all of the surviving crew were on board one or other of the destroyers.
Included in the British survivors was Midshipman EF Fegan. He was a man destined to go on to greater glory as Captain of the Jervis Bay, an armed merchant cruiser that was sunk defending a convoy against a German surface raider in the Second World War. Fegan won a posthumous Victoria Cross in that later action.
Now, early in the morning of 5 August 1914, the end of the Amphion was not far away. Despite striking the mine, the ship still had way on and was turning in a slow, wide circle. And unfortunately she now ran full tilt into another mine.
This time the ship's magazine exploded and just after 7am the Amphion finally sank. One officer and over 150 men were lost. The war was just over 36 hours old and hundreds of ships, from both the Royal and Merchant navies, were to go to the bottom before peace finally came in November 1918.
Seven Pembroke Dock ships were sunk during the war, two of them at Jutland. But none of the losses had quite the same dramatic effect as that first sinking in August 1914. That was when the reality of war first hit home to the dockyard workers of Pembroke Dock who had created her. It was a salutary lesson.
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Monday 5 August 2013, 09:30
Monday 5 August 2013, 12:54