View of the fleet from an airship


“Battle cruiser seems in distress…”

On 5th June 1916, a German u-boat mine claimed a prize- the life of Field Marshall Earl of Kitchener, Minister for War. He had been enroute to persuade the Russian Tsar to keep his troops engaged in the First World War. With him were 643 crew and his staff. Also killed were two IMechE members, Sir Frederick Hay Donaldson and Leslie Stephen Robertson/Robinson. Of the 667 who sailed, 12 survived.

In May 1916, 22 mines had been laid by the u-boat in the Scapa Flow, off Orkney. Routine mine sweeping had not occurred due to bad weather. The weather was also bad as the Hampshire and two destroyers, HMS Victor and Unity, set sail. Perhaps it should have been an omen, the wind being so bad Victor and Unity had to return to base. At 7.45am an urgent telegraph was sent reporting “Battle cruiser seems in distress between Marwick Head and the brough of Birsay”; having pulled anchors at 4.40am, Hampshire was only 1.5 miles from shore. What was not known, was that an exploding mine had knocked out all radio capabilities as the power had gone. The Hampshire was sinking.

The RNLI rushed to Stromness Naval Headquarters offering to launch a lifeboat. According to reports, their help was strenuously rejected. Furthermore, armed soldiers stood guard over the coast preventing local help from reaching the stricken ship. The Hampshire’s own lifeboats were sadly ineffective. The first came to shore at nearly midday, having left with 40 men and having picked up another 30 only 6 were left alive. A similar fate awaited the men in the next boat, of 40-50 men 4 survived the crossing. Once at shore, the men faced the obstacle of rocks that they had to haul themselves up and most died in the attempt.

Today Kitchener is a somewhat controversial figure, the renewed highlight on his wartime actions mean his tactics have been critisied. His death was controversial also, people questioned: why help was resisted; why the Hampshire carried on when the Victor and Unity did not; and if Kitchener was murdered (or not even on board, it all being a rouse). On the flip side, his death caused fear in serving men, would the war be lost? The reverberations of his death were profound, the imapct immediate. Perhaps the closest comparison to modern deaths would be that of John Lennon, Princess Diana or John F Kennedy in terms of popular impact and interest. And yet, on the night the authorities were not even clear which boat was sinking- or if it was British or German.

So what happened? The truth is nobody really knows. Certainly, weather hampered normal sea defences. It is also likely that due to the naval Battle of Jutland, confusion and distraction led to the u-boats activities being missed.

Robertson was General Staff, Director of Production at the Ministry of Munitions and Donaldson was General Staff, Chief Superintendent Ordnance Factories; Donaldson was IMechE President, 1913-1914.

Engineers at War: from Home Front to Battle Front, is an online exhibition from IMechE, ICE and IET telling the story of engineering during the First World War (WWI); our honour roll records the obituaries on all our members killed during the conflict.



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