The Gaillardia was an Aubretia class sloop, built by the Blyth Shipbuilding Co. Ltd (Yard No.201) and launched on 19 May 1917. Her dimensions were 267.8′ x 33.5.’ x 12.5′, tonnage 1250 dt, and powered by a triple expansion steam engine of 2400ihp. She was armed with 2 @ 4.7” guns and 2 @ 3pdr AA guns.
There is little doubt that the loss of HMS Gaillardia on 22nd March 1918 with most of her crew was due to the ship hitting a mine. The enquiry and court martial that followed focussed on whether the loss was the result of the ship hitting a British mine that had been just been laid and had drifted loose or whether it was, in fact, a German mine and if the captain, Lieutenant John Alexander McDonald RVR had been on the correct course at the time of the explosion .
At 5am on 22nd March 1918 HMS Gaillardia left Leriwck with order to patrol off the east coast of Orkney accompanying the minelayers Princess Margaret and Angora. She was commanded by Lieutenant McDonald. At the wheel was Commander Shafer, an experienced skipper in the sea region east of Orkney. Gaillardia rendezvoused with the mine layers at 7am. Also in close attendance was a third ship HMS Musketeer and a number of other destroyers were patrolling nearby. Minelaying operations began at 8am with the ships steering an easterly course. Musketeer and Gaillardia followed Princess Margaret’s mine laying run steaming in a line following the marker buoys which marked the safe northerly edge of the minefield. During the operation Princess Margaret twice called on one of the destroyers to sink some ‘floaters’ – a term used to describe mines which had broken lose when deployed rather than suspend at their pre-planned depth. At the end of her run Princess Margaret called in Gaillardia to sink some four more ‘floaters’ which she successfully achieved. None of these four mines exploded when the Gaillardia hit and sunk them. At 11.40am, while Gaillardia and Musketeer were steaming in line at 15 knots on a bearing of N72W there was a tremendous explosion five or six cables off Gaillardia’s starboard bow. It looked like five or six mines had exploded but there was no explanation why this should have occurred. Neither skipper was unduly concerned as the explosion was well away from the working ships. They resolved to report the incident on their return to port. Gaillardia sunk the 4th ‘floater’ at 11:45am. Ten minutes later, with Lieutenant McDonald on the port side of the bridge, a huge explosion erupted from the port side of the ship which threw McDonald to the deck. Seconds later two further explosions rocked the sloop. She was doomed and immediately began to sink. The crew scrambled to evacuate the fast sinking ship. She sank on an even keel three or four minutes after the explosions. Two officers, including Commander Shafer, and sixty nine crewmen lost their lives. Boats from the Musketeer succeeded in rescuing the surviving crewmen from the cold water despite the sightings of further floating mines amid the wreckage.
At the subsequent enquiry it was held that they, Gaillardia and Musketeer were in the correct positions west of the safety line. All the evidence suggested they were outside the line of marker buoys indicating the safe edge of the minefield. It therefore seemed improbable that mines had been inadvertently dragged to the position of the explosion. Although the captain of the Musketeer reported seeing a floating mine amid the wreckage during the rescue of the survivors he was unable to distinguish if the mine was of British or German design. The enquiry concluded that the Gaillardia had almost certainly been sunk after impacting a German mine laid earlier at some unknown point. However the Court Martial held later into the actions of the man in charge of the vessel at her loss, John McDonald, held a different view. While the court cleared McDonald of any wrongdoing, they believed that the mines that caused the loss of HMS Gaillardia were in fact British mines which had been dragged or had floated outside the line of the marker buoys marking the edge of the minefield. The truth of the matter will never be known.
The wreck located in the position 58°55.753’N, 001°49.485’W is believed to be remains of HMS Gaillardia, to the best of our knowledge this has never been verified. The wreck lies in 94 metres with a least depth of 89 metres and is oriented 055/235°.