Built at the yard of Cammell Laird in Birkenhead the Pathfinder Class scout cruiser Pathfinder was launched on 6th July 1904. She measured 385.0′ x 38.4′ x 13.8′ and was 2940 displacement tons. Her twin 4 cylinder triple expansion oil-fired steam engines generated 16500 ihp. She was armed with 9 @ quick firing Mark IV guns, 6 @ 6 pounder guns, 2 @ 18 inch torpedo tubes.
Pathfinder spent her early career with the Atlantic Fleet, Channel Fleet (1906) and then the Home Fleet (1907). At the start of the First World War she was part of the 8th Destroyer Flotilla, in the Firth of Forth. She was a good ship but severely hampered by lack of bunker space for her coal. The result was that she generally restricted her speed to 5 knots to maximise her time at sea on each sortie. It is not known if this lack of speed contributed to her loss but obviously a British capital ship travelling at this speed would become a prime target for German U-boats.
Despite the never ending tension of war duty, Captain Francis Martin Leake and his 290 crewmen were enjoying the pleasant sunshine of a sunny autumn afternoon as Pathfinder steamed along on her regular patrol on the outer edge of the area designated as the Firth of Forth. The visibility was excellent with a slight swell shaping the sea’s smooth surface and light clouds drifting across the blue skies. It was Saturday 5th September, 1914.
At about 3:50pm, with Pathfinder in a position approximately 17 miles south east of May Island, and with Officer of the Watch Lieutenant Commander Favell on the bridge, the peaceful scene was shattered as a torpedo from U-21, commanded by Oberleutnant Otto Hersing, smashed into the starboard side of the ship. Hersing was returning from a daring, night time attempt to enter the Forth and destroy the Forth Bridge – a key link between the industrialised south and the naval bases at Rosyth, Cromarty and Scapa Flow. He might have been successful had it not been for the sharp eyed crews of two gun batteries near the bridge who spotted his periscope and opened fire chasing the German boat back to open water. Hersing’s place in history was only to wait three more days – he would become the commander of the first U-boat to sink a Royal Navy ship.
The track of the torpedo had been noticed in the calm sea by the Chief Boatswain’s Mate who shouted a warning – but, despite a desperate order to the engine room to reverse the starboard engine, it was too late. The impact of the torpedo itself ignited the forward magazine and the resulting huge explosion ripped open the hull of the British ship. The front end of the ship was completely wrecked and, as the surviving crewmen clambered onto the decks, she was already well down by the bow and water was washing over the base of number 2 funnel. A huge pall of black cordite smoke hung over the sinking ship like a shroud. Captain Leake ordered a deck gun fired in an attempt to attract the attention of someone on May Island – the explosion had wrecked many of the available boats leaving the crew at the mercy of rescue from the island or nearby ships. The base of the gun must have been damaged in the attack because, as the gun was fired, it ripped of its base and careered dangerously across the deck before dropping over the side of the ship.
Only five minutes after the impact, groaning and tearing noises from below signalled that the forward bulkheads had collapsed – the ship was going down fast! She took a heavy lurch forward forcing the crew to jump for their lives into the sea. The seamen struggling in the water then turned back towards their ship to see the stern lift into the air and the ship sink beneath the waves at a 60 degree angle – it had been 15 minutes since the explosion. The men were left to wait and hope that someone had seen the smoke and that help was on the way. They tried to keep their spirits up by singing and chatting but as time moved on and darkness approached their hopes began to fade. Thankfully, at around 5:15pm, two destroyers reached the scene and began to pick up the remaining crew – Captain Leake was among the 58 survivors.
The author Aldous Huxley was staying in St Abbs and wrote to his father on 14th October: ‘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.’
The huge wreck of HMS Pathfinder lies in position 56°07.593’N, 002°10.048’W (WGS84) in 62 metres of water and rises 8 metres above the seabed. She sits upright on a flat seabed oriented 100°/290°. The hull is in tact from the stern to the bridge area. The bow section broke off during the initial explosions and lies some distance from the main body of the wreck. Some of her guns are still visible with at least one still mounted on its pedestal and there is ammunition scattered among the wreckage. At the stern the two high speed bronze props, partially embedded in a scour in the seabed beneath the wreck are an impressive sight.
To date the wreck has not been officially protected but it is clearly a war grave and should be treated with the respect due to a vessel where so many seamen died.