Sunday, May 2, 2021

HMS Pathfinder – The second victim of submarines

Everybody who knows about the wars at sea will be aware that the very first ship to sink due to the actions of a submarine was the USS Housatonic which was sunk by the Confederate 8-man submarine HL Hunley in 1864, but what many do not know is that there would not be another ship sunk in this way for another fifty years. 

Submarine technology had come a long way in such a short time and in August 1914 the First World War showed the world that this deadly undersea weapon was the most formidable of them all. It was just one month after Britain declared war on Germany, and the U-21 was patrolling off the Scottish coast looking for a target. So far the sub had been unsuccessful, but on the morning of 5th September, commander Otto Hersing found that his luck may have turned when he spotted a ship through his periscope. 

The ship he saw was the cruiser HMS Pathfinder, launched only ten years previously and 370 feet long, her three funnels and extremely tall fore mast providing a positive identification of a target that the U-boat was looking for. The ship was just under 3000 tons, had a crew of 289 and was armed with ten 3-inch guns and ten smaller calibre guns all along the upper deck. Built in Birkenhead, she was completed just one year and two days after her launch. 

What was astounding as the submarine lined her up for attack was that Pathfinder was short of coal and could only make 5 knots, an easy hit for a modern submarine to chase. At 1543 hours a single torpedo was fired and just two minutes later it struck the ship just under the bridge. What happened next shocked everyone as the magazine was penetrated and the bags of cordite detonated sending a huge explosion skyward, ripping the Pathfinder in two. 

The ship immediately sank, so quickly that no lifeboats were launched; all that was left within minutes was a drifting of wreckage, oil and bodies. Ships sped to the area to search for survivors but in the end there were just 54 left alive after several who were initially found alive died later. These figures are disputed by some sources that claim that there were just 20 survivors out of 270 on board. However many were lost/saved, the sinking of the Pathfinder was a huge disaster for the Royal Navy and a great victory for the German U-boats. 

Pathfinder became the second ever ship to be sunk by a submarine and the first to be sunk by a sub using a torpedo. The wreck of the scout cruiser now lies at a depth of 48m in the North Sea off St Abbs Head, she is officially classed as a war grave. 

In the East Yorkshire town of Bridlington a grave of one of those who died on board Pathfinder stands proud in the town cemetery. John Raywood Charlton was a Telegraphist on board when he died in the sinking aged just 19; his body was recovered from the sea and returned to his home town. The Bridlington Sea Cadets have named their base HMS Pathfinder in tribute to the ship and her town connection, one that lives on through the name and will now never be forgotten. 

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