Dive commemorates lives lost on WWI ship

SBBN HMS Pathfinder sunk September 1914 off St Abbs

SBBN HMS Pathfinder sunk September 1914 off St Abbs

Scuba divers will lay a wreath on the wreck of a First World War ship off St Abbs to remember over 250 crewmen who lost their lives.

The British Sub-Aqua Club (BSAC) divers are planning their commemorative dive on the 100th anniversary of the sinking of HMS Pathfinder - the first ever ship to be sunk by a submarine-launched torpedo,

On September 5, 1914, a torpedo from German U-boat 21 struck the Pathfinder, and the ship went down.

The explosion ignited the ship’s magazine, destroying the fore section of the ship and causing the foremast and number one funnel to collapse.

The majority of crew, below decks, had neither the time nor opportunity to escape and went down with the ship.

On Friday, September 5, 2014, 20 scuba divers will go down to the wreck of HMS Pathfinder, which lies 68m below the surface, to lay a wreath in memory of the crew who lost their lives.

The aim is also to take more photos and video footage of the wreck to ensure her story is recorded in more detail for future generations.

Group leader Dave Lock is leading the HMS Pathfinder dive team and said that his team of ten BSAC divers taking part will be from clubs around the country.

He said: “The planned dive will be a poignant and sombre occasion. Hopefully, we will manage to dive on the wreck of HMS Pathfinder exactly 100 years to the day of her sinking.

“However, she lies upright, in quite deep water. Her stern is at 68 metres while her decks are at 58 to 60 metres.

“This is a dive for experienced sports divers with a Technical Diving qualification.

“We are using an Eyemouth-based dive charter company, Marine Quest, who have other highly qualified divers taking part in the dive.”

The Cammel Laird, Birkenhead-built HMS Pathfinder was struck by a single torpedo fired from U-21, under the command of Kapitänleutnant Otto Hersing.

It was so short on coal at the time that it could manage a speed of only five knots, making it an easy target.

Dave Lock continued: “This dive mission is all about showing respect to the wreck and to the lives that were lost. Accurate figures for the actual people on board are difficult, which is not unusual for ships at that time.

“However, best estimates put the crew at 268 and there were just 18 survivors including the captain despite the fact he remained with the ship until the very last moment.

“And this was the first ship to be sunk due to a locomotive torpedo which makes it all the more interesting.”

He added: “As experienced and responsible divers we will respect the remains, which is a designated protected wreck under the Protection of Military Remains Act 1986 and ensure nothing is touched or disturbed. We intend to lay a wreath and leave the wreck exactly as we found it.”

Dave, a retired radio planner, said the wreck of HMS Pathfinder is in remarkably good condition despite the fact it has lain on the bottom of the North Sea for a century. “It has been dived before. We know the wreck is in good condition despite the fact the fore ship and bows were blown apart in the explosion that followed the torpedo strike.

“However, there are very few underwater photographs available of the wreck so we are hopeful of doing some video and still photography.

“The depth of the wreck is an issue and does cause some difficulty as most camera housings are designed to work at depths no deeper than around 30 to 40 metres.

“We do have divers on the expedition that do have camera equipment that can operate at the depths we require though.”

How the sinking of the Pathfinder was reported

When the Admiralty announced the sinking of the Pathfinder, reported in the ‘Berwickshire Advertiser’ on September 8, it was described as having sunk after striking a mine, in an attempt at lessening public panic over German ships operating in British waters. However, this was debunked by the presence of eyewitnesses along the coast who saw the attack unfold.

The ‘Advertiser’ report described an “enormous stretch of wreckage”, which was supported by the author Aldous Huxley, staying at Northfield House, St. Abbs. In a letter to his father sent on 14 September, Huxley wrote: “I dare say Julian told you that we actually saw the Pathfinder explosion — a great white cloud with its foot in sea.

“The St. Abbs’ lifeboat came in with the most appalling accounts of the scene. There was not a piece of wood, they said, big enough to float a man - and over acres the sea was covered with fragments — human and otherwise. They brought back a sailor’s cap with half a man’s head inside it. The explosion must have been frightful. It is thought to be a German submarine that did it, or, possibly, a torpedo fired from one of the refitted German trawlers, which cruise all round painted with British port letters and flying the British flag.”

Another eyewitness said in a statement that “the waters were densely strewn for a mile and a half. There were any number of seaman’s jackets, caps, jerseys, boots, stockings letters and a mass of papers, photos and books.”

He went on: “A sad memento of the disaster was the finding of the ship’s Bible and order of daily service.”

Two officers on duty at Cockburnspath witnessed the disaster, along with their colleagues at Dunbar.

According to the ‘Berwickshire Advertiser’: “many people at Eyemouth who were on the golf courses and the fort could plainly see the smoke rising to the sky at sea, while people on St Abbs Head saw a flash, smoke, and heard a double explosion. The St Abbs lifeboat was quickly launched and a motor fishing boat accompanied her, while six steam drifters immediately let Eyemouth harbour.”

Some of the pieces of wreckage were collected and brought to Eyemouth Coastguard Station. The paper’s report continued: “A sailor’s collar with holes burnt in it told a pitiful tale. A letter which had been written by a sailor had been picked up. It was to his wife enclosing a money order for three pounds. In it he expressed the wish that the war would be over soon, “and if we meet the Germans we will wipe them off the map.”

A single, unknown, sailor on the ship is buried at Dunbar, overlooking the scene of the sinking.

Despite the official explanation for the explosions being a sea-mine, local reports did mention a “suspicious craft” that left the scene at high speed.

It was not until September 22 that the role of the German U-boat was made clear, when “a correspondent of ‘The Scotsman’” wrote that it had been sunk. The claim was modified later in the story: “There is ground for the belief that the vessel which scored for the German navy its only point of the war to date has been sent to the bottom.

“With grim patience the British cruisers awaited the time when the submarine was bound to appear on the surface.

“The conning-tower had hardly broken the surface of the water when the first British gun marked it down.

“The doomed vessel was within range of seven of the British Fleet. From every one of those vessels guns crashed out instantaneously.

“Within 10 seconds seven shots from different ships had smashed into the frail shell of the submarine and she went to the bottom, having lived less than a minute after showing herself.”




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