The steel Devonshire class armed cruiser Hampshire was launched from the Armstrong Whitworth yard at Elswick on the 24th September 1903. She measured 473.5′ x 68.5′ x 25.5′ and displaced 10,850 tons. Her vertical inverted triple expansion, 4 cylinder, surface condensing steam engine by Hawthorn Leslie and Co Ltd delivered 20500 ihp. Her significant armament consisted of 4 @ 7.5″ breech loading, hydraulic mounting casements on the main deck and on the upper deck 6 @ 6″ breech loading guns and 20 @ 3 pounder Vickers guns. She had 2 submerged 18″ tubes, 1 on either beam and carried 9 @ 18″ torpedoes Mk V. She was heavily armoured with her main belt ranging from 2 to 6 inches, her bulkheads 5 inches, her turrets 5 inches, her barbettes 6 inches, her ammunition tubes 3 inches, her casemate guns 2 to 6 inches and her decks 3/4 to 2 inches of armour plating.
By the outbreak of war in 1914 the Hampshire was already viewed as an old ship with her relatively light armour and relatively small calibre guns overtaken by the trend towards huge ships with massive armour and gigantic guns. However, as she plunged down the slipway at Armstrong’s shipyard she still looked formidable with 325 feet of her length heavily protected by six inches of solid steel armour plate. While she was heavily outgunned by the enormous range and power of 12″ and 15″ guns of later German and British capital ships she still carried significant firepower. Her pre war career took her around the world and by January 1914 she was on station with the China Squadron patrolling between Colombo, Hong Kong, Vladivostock and various ports in Japan. With the declaration of war on 4th August the nature of her patrols quickly changed as she was placed on a war footing. Shortly after, she sank a German freighter in the China Sea. The Germans had a number of capital ships in the area and the Hampshire was involved in the famous hunt and chase of the raider Emden before the Emden was finally caught and sunk by the Australian cruiser Sydney off the Cocos Islands.
After this short period she was called back to Britain and steamed home through the Suez Canal and the Mediteranean returning to Devonport after refitting at Gibralter over Christmas 1914. After a further refit at Birkenhead and Belfast she took up her station with the British Grand Fleet in the famous naval anchorage at Scapa Flow.
Here the British fleet sat out the nervous wait for the German High Seas Fleet to venture out from its lair at Wilhlemshaven. Many months of frustration were interrupted by numerous patrols in the North Sea and the Atlantic before the climactic confrontation between the huge fleets at the Battle of Jutland in June 1916. Despite the disputed outcome of the battle the Hampshire is credited with the sinking of a German light cruiser and a submarine which she sank by ramming in the early hours of the battle. She returned unscathed, in triumph, to Scapa Flow on 3rd June and was immediately ordered to take up a station close to Admiral Jellicoe’s flagship Iron Duke. Rumours quickly spread that she was about to undertake a very important mission and that someone from the High Command was about to embark on the ship. The rumours were confirmed at 4pm when Field Marshall Earl Kitchener, Secretary of State for War, arrived by pinnace from the Iron Duke. Kitchener was probably the most famous member of the wartime government with his face adorning thousands of posters encouraging the British to join up with the famous slogan ” Your country needs you.”
Kitchener had left Kings Cross Station in London the previous day and, after a short trip across the Pentland Firth in HMS Oak, had boarded Jellicoe’s flagship for final consultations before setting out on a vital mission to Archangel, Russia for a meeting with Britain’s Russian allies. He was impatient to depart despite the terrible weather conditions from a north eastlerly gale which swept across the barren hills of Orkney and churned the sea of the normally sheltered anchorage. Admiral Jellicoe had originally planned the route north to swing round the east side of the Orkneys but changed the route to a westerly sweep in an attempt to give the Hampshire some shelter from the worst of the gale. He sent out a minesweeper to ensure that the intended channel was clear but, critically, this activity was severely hampered by the appalling sea conditions. Once again he tried to convince Kitchener to delay until a proper sweep could be completed but the Secretary of War would not be delayed.
Meanwhile another series of events was moving ahead in far off Norway that would eventually lead to the loss of the Hampshire and her illustrious passenger. A series of messages from British minesweeper destroyers off the west coast of the Orkneys was intercepted by a German radio station and deciphered. The apparently routine radio traffic indicated activity sweeping clear the channel off the west coast of the islands. However the repeated messages and the urgency of the language convinced the German command that something important was happening. Coincidentally, the Germans had planned a widespread minelaying expedition around the north of Scotland at that time. The fleet of U-boats to carry out the mission was already at sea but the excitement surrounding the urgent messages from the west of Orkney led the German commanders to change their plans and dispatch U-75 to this area instead of the original plan which had sent most of her sister ships to other areas of the North Sea. Conditions for the U-75’s voyage were horrendous as she was tossed around in huge seas but she reached the Orkney area successfully and finally they sighted Noup Head, the start of her target area. Between 6 and 8:30am that morning she laid 22 mines between Noup Head and Marwick Head at a depth of 7 metres and then sped off on her return trip to her base.
And so, at around 3pm on 5th June, the escort destroyers HMS Unity and HMS Victor were dispatched ahead of Hampshire and steamed off into the stormy winter’s afternoon. One and a half hours later the Hampshire slipped her buoy and steamed out of Scapa on her last voyage. She headed out through the southern entrance to the anchorage and west round the rocky cliffs of Hoy. The sea was mountainous and she quickly caught the two destroyers who were struggling to make any headway against the strong north easterly gale. Captain Herbert Savill of the Hampshire finally ordered them to turn round and return to the shelter of Scapa Flow considering the conditions too extreme for U-boat activity in any case.
As the ship reached the area off Marwick Head the crew were settling in to normal seagoing routine and Kitchener was below in the captain’s cabin. It was around 8:30pm. Suddenly the ship was rocked by a loud explosion and almost immediately she was plunged into total darkness as all electrical power failed. Survivors later described the acrid smell of fumes from the exploding mine which permeated the sinking ship as the crew scrambled through the darkness in an attempt to save themselves. The terrifying roar of rushing water could be head throughout most of the ship. The crew knew instantly that their ship was doomed and that their own chances of survival in the cold, angry seas off Orkney were slim. However, discipline was maintained as the crew rushed to their muster stations and waited the command to abandon ship. Some of the survivors recall seeing Kitchener on deck before she went down but he and his staff were to perish that night along with the vast majority of the ship’s crew of more than six hundred.
The mine had struck on the port side at the forward engine room and had ripped a huge hole in the bottom of the ship. With water quickly filling this huge space the building pressure rapidly smashed the engine room bulkhead and the Hampshire was doomed. The devastation in the engine room itself was appalling with most of the crew in the area killed instantly by the explosion. Elsewhere on the ship the crew flooded the magazine to avoid further explosions while they desperately tried to reach the comparative safety of the deck. However, once on deck the situation was little better. The larger lifeboats could not be launched as they were lowered by electrically powered winches and all power had been lost. A few smaller boats were launched but were immediately smashed against the side of the ship or overturned in the heavy swell throwing their occupants into the boiling sea. The most effective rescue devices were the huge cork Carley floats which were simply hurled into the sea. Many survivors clambered aboard these simple structures. The few seamen who reached the safety of the Carley floats looked back in awe as the huge ship reared her stern high in the air and sank by the bow.
Ashore on Orkney a few islanders actually witnessed the explosion and watched in horror as the huge ship plunged to the seabed. The alarm was raised and a message sent to Stromness. Later. there was considerable controversy over the apparent delays in the rescue efforts. The lifeboat at Stromness was not called out though it must be questionable if it could have reached the area in the dreadful sea conditions that night. In the end it was 9:45pm before the ocean going tug Flying Kestral and the trawlers Northward and Renzo put to sea. Over the next few hours many other ships were sent to the scene but it was too late. These ships did not pick up a single survivor.
For the survivors of the Hampshire now struggling in the freezing black water the ordeal was still far from over. It was a dreadful night and the men were driven slowly towards the barren rock cliffs of the west coast of Orkney. Most perished of exposure or drowned before they reached the shore. More were lost, smashed against the rocks and cliffs of the shore. In the end only twelve men from the compliment of passengers, civilians and crew of over seven hundred survived. They were picked up from the scene by islanders who had watched the rafts drifting ashore from the wreck. The next day, lines of bodies lay in the fields at the top of the cliffs and the sea below was covered the flottsam from the sunken ship. Elsewhere more bodies were brought ashore at Stromness by the fleet of search ships. Many of the bodies were taken to Lyness for burial.
Almost immediately support began to a proposal to build monument to the men lost on the ship but is was not until 1924 that work began on its construction. It was completed in September 1925 and officially unveiled on 2nd July 1926. The 48 foot high stone tower stands on the cliff top at Marwick Head – a lasting reminder of the tragic loss that occurred on a mile off shore on that terrible June night.
The wreck of the Hampshire lay undisturbed for nearly eighty years as she lies in 70 metres and was, until recently beyond the limits of sports divers. Despite claims of earlier visits to the wreck the first verifiable dives on the wreck took place in 1977 and 1979. These dives were undertaken by a consortium led by Californian businessman John Breckenridge. They returned in 1983 with a team of six saturation divers. This team raised her vast starboard propeller and some guns and other bronze and brass fittings. They claimed all the items salvaged had been lying on the seabed and the hull itself was not disturbed. This created a huge furore as most thought that the wreck should be left, protected, as a war grave. The items removed were immediately seized and impounded by HM Customs. Through the late 80s and 90s as recreational diving techniques advanced the wreck was often dived by visiting parties before, in 2002, the wreck was officially designated as a protected military wreck. She lies in position 59° 07.023’N, 03° 23.739’W with a least depth of 55 metres and sits upside down oriented 152°/332°. The hull is in tact for the majority of the length of the ship but is torn apart by the explosion of the mine towards the bow.