No.64: HMS Fisgard II (Diary of the War at Sea No.2)

The Royal Navy Gears Up for War

This week we commemorate the centenary of the loss of HMS Fisgard II on 17 September 1914, an example of a vessel designated under the Protection of Military Remains Act 1986.

Built as the Audacious-class steamer HMS Invincible on the Clyde in 1870, she started out as an ironclad with a central battery of armament, rather than the broadside arrangement of guns, which had been so typical of the sailing fighting ship, and thus marks a point in the evolution of the 19th century Royal Navy.

As with other superseded warships before and since, when no longer suitable for frontline warfare she continued in service in less active roles. By 1906 she had joined her sister ship HMS Audacious, renamed Fisgard I, at HMS Fisgard, a navy training establishment for engineers at Portsmouth, becoming Fisgard II: four Fisgard hulks, all former warships, made up the establishment.

In 1914 a pressing need to train men up for wartime naval duty became apparent, and to that end, although Fisgard II was on the disposal list, she was instead retained and despatched for Scapa Flow in September.

While under tow in the Channel it was seen that water was coming in through her hawse-pipes, so that Fisgard II and her tugs all turned about for Portland. Before they could make it, she foundered relatively close to safety within 3 miles SSW of the Bill of Portland, with the loss of 14 hands from the 64-strong crew.

Contemporary newspapers noted approvingly that: ‘Discipline was maintained throughout. Every man was cool and good order was kept to the last.’ The Coroner, however, did not mince his words: ‘ . . . the ship was entirely unfitted for the sea. The Admiralty might just as well have put the men into a tub and towed them into the Channel and then wonder why they lost their lives. It did not seem right to send out a ship in such a condition.’ (1)

Fisgard II was therefore lost not to war causes nor in action, but to the exigencies of a war to which she was by now ill-suited.

She would not be the first, nor the last, hulked naval vessel to be lost while under tow: they were vulnerable because they lacked the necessary propulsion to manoeuvre out of trouble. This point was picked up by a survivor at the inquest, who drew attention to her lack of steering gear. Nor was she the only training ship that got into trouble at sea, but the tale of training ships is an interesting one in its own right, which will be told in another post.

(1) The Times, 19 September 1914, No.40,640, p3

No.63 The Magdapur

75 years since the outbreak of the Second World War

[updated: 10.09.2019 for the 80th anniversary of the Second World War]

This week commemorates the first ships sunk in English waters following the declaration of war on 3 September 1939. The period between the declaration of war and the events of 1940 is often known as the ‘Phoney War’, in which nothing much happened militarily. Yet war at sea was already being waged on both sides.

The Goodwood and the Magdapur each foundered after striking a mine in different locations off the east coast, both on 10 September 1939.

They were not the first wartime losses at sea: that distinction belonged to the Athenia, sunk in the Atlantic by U-boat on 3 September. The toll of merchantmen lost on the Allied side worldwide would account for 808 pages of typescript in Lloyd’s War Losses for the Second World War, Volume I: British, Allied and Neutral Merchant Vessels Sunk or Destroyed by War Causes, with an average of five or six ships per page.

The first ship to go down in English waters on that day was the collier Goodwood, early in the morning off Flamborough Head. The Magdapur sank the same afternoon off Suffolk, calling out the RNLI for the first of their many wartime services over the ensuing six years as the Aldeburgh lifeboat sped to the scene. She was the victim of a minefield laid on 4 September, the day after the declaration of war, by U13. That same minefield would shortly afterwards claim the French ship Phryné, on 24 September. U13 would herself be lost off the same coastline at the end of May 1940 when she was depth-charged by HMS Weston, delineating a landscape of war linking attacker and victims, by which time the ‘Phoney War’ was well and truly over.

As her name implies, the Magdapur had strong connections with India. Her owners, the Brocklebank Line, had a long tradition of specialising in the India trade. She was thus one of many British ships who relied on lascars, or Indian seamen, many of whom traditionally worked below in the engine room. The Magdapur had a significant complement of 60 lascars among her 80-strong crew. Six men were lost, of whom four were lascars, commemorated on the dual rolls of honour kept at Bombay and Chittagong. (You can search for any casualty of the two World Wars or later through the Commonwealth War Graves Commission Advanced Search page by date of death and service, e.g. Merchant Navy.)

An interesting local history document shows photographs of the wreck event as the Magdapur sinks with her back broken, and some of the rescued lascars with locals: .

The number of lascars working aboard British ships means that their involvement in shipwreck events worldwide and in English waters is significant, particularly in the first half of the 20th century: both in peace (Mahratta I, 1909) and war (Sir Francis, June 1917; Medina, April 1917; Rewa, January 1918). Even in this early period of the ‘Phoney War’, the war was all too real and touched lives around the world.