Belfast Telegraph

Account of sailor who survived torpedo attack on HMS Pathfinder found

By Claire Williamson

The experience of a Co Down man who survived the sinking of the HMS Pathfinder in 1914 has been revealed in a letter to his mother.

The Pathfinder-class scout cruiser was the first ship ever to be sunk by a locomotive torpedo fired by a submarine.

On September 5, 1914, it was sunk off St Abbs Head off the Scottish coast by U-21 commanded by Kapitänleutnant Otto Hersing – taking with her six men from Ulster.

Ahead of the centenary anniversary, the HMS Bangor will arrive in Bangor, Co Down where she will be open to the general public.

Despite the event having been easily visible from shore the authorities attempted to cover up the sinking and Pathfinder was reported to have been mined.

Co Down man, Staff Surgeon Thomas Aubrey Smyth, in his account describes how it all happened in minutes.

He wrote: "The explosion blew a great hole in the side of the ship.

"I was at the time in the wardroom, but ran up on deck immediately, and it was then evident by the way the bow was down in the water that she would sink rapidly.

"I should say the whole thing occurred in about 10 minutes which time was spent in throwing overboard the few articles which would float (the reason there was not more of these was that in preparation for war all unnecessary woodwork is got rid of to prevent fire).

"I was then thrown forward by the slope of the deck and got jammed beneath a gun (which I expect is the cause of my bruising) and while in this position was carried down some way by the sinking ship, but fortunately after a time I became released and after what seemed like interminable ages I came to the surface, and after swimming a short time I was able to get an oar and some other floating material with the help of which I was just able to keep on the surface.

"After holding on for a long time – I believe it was an hour and a half – I must have become unconscious for I have no recollection of being picked out of the water. You see we were alone when it happened, so it took a long time for the reserve torpedo boats to come out and it was too quick to get any of our own boats out, besides most of the few we had were splintered into pieces."

At the time there was some confusion over the exact number of crew on board – but research indicates there were 261 deaths and 18 survivors.

The majority of crew below decks went down with the ship.

At least six Ulstermen died onboard – including Herbert Daly from Lurgan (24), James Herbert Hillis from Banbridge (26), William Swann from Glasgow who lived in Belfast (23), Andrew West (23), and George Sinclair Bell (28), Charles John Gorman (24), all from Belfast.

All six men are remembered at Chatham Naval Memorial.


On the Centenary of HMS Pathfinder's sinking on

September 5, HMS Bangor will arrive in Bangor, Co Down.

The wreck site of HMS Pathfinder is designated under the Protection of

Military Remains Act 1986. The anniversary will be marked by the British Sub-Aqua Club whose members will lay a wreath in memory of the dead.

Belfast Telegraph

Daily News Headlines Newsletter

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox.


From Belfast Telegraph