Lost Treasure of HMS Hampshire

In mid-1916, HMS Hampshire (a Devonshire-class armoured cruiser of the Royal Navy) saw service during the First World War and was present at the battle of Jutland. Several days later she was sailing to Russia, carrying the Secretary of State for War, Field Marshal Lord Kitchener, when she is believed to have struck a mine laid by a German submarine. She sank with heavy loss of life, including Kitchener and his staff. Rumours later circulated of German spies and sabotage being involved in the sinking. Her wreck is listed under the Protection of Military Remains Act, though part was later illegally salvaged. A number of films were made exploring the circumstances of her loss.

On 5 June 1916, Britain’s Secretary of State for War, Lord Kitchener of Khartoum, set out on a highly secretive military mission to Russia, probably with the aim of stiffening the Tsar’s resolve and offering him support in maintaining the Anglo-Russian alliance. To reach St. Petersburg, Kitchener was to sail by warship through the dangerous waters to the north of Scotland and along the coast of Norway, well inside the Arctic Circle, then south past the Kola Peninsula of Russia and thorough the White Sea to the port of Archangel. A few days previously, on 31 May, the only major naval engagement of the war had been fought, when the British and German fleets met at the Battle of Jutland. This was an unexpected engagement, and proved indecisive, as both commanders exercised great caution. Nevertheless, the battle ended with the loss of three British battleships and one German.

The news of the British losses was greeted with dismay at home, but the Battle of Jutland was not a total disaster, since the naval status quo was unaffected, and thereafter the blockade of Germany’s fleet in its North Sea bases was successfully maintained until the end of the war. A far greater shock to the nation, perhaps the most traumatic news of the war to date, was the announcement on 6 June that the cruiser HMS Hampshire had been sunk off the coast of the Orkney Islands and that Lord Kitchener had drowned.

HMS Hampshire

Although there now seems little doubt that what sank the HMS Hampshire was not sabotage, but a mine, and that what brought ship and mine into contact was not treachery, but incompetence, the suspicions were to linger. An air of mystery continued to surround both the Hampshire’s loss and the exact nature of Kitchener’s mission. Some years later the speculation extended to what else, apart from a national icon, the ship was carrying when it sank. For many there was a reason to believe that its cargo may have included a large consignment of gold.

Lord Kitchener left London from King’s Cross station on the evening of Sunday, 4 June in the company of a small group of officials and servants. He was bound for Scapa Flow, in the Orkneys, the war base of the Grand Fleet, to which it had recently returned after the Battle of Jutland. He travelled by train overnight to Thurso, in the extreme north of Scotland, and crossed to Scapa Flow the following morning on the destroyer Royal Oak. He had lunch with Admiral Sir John Jellicoe, Commander-in-Chief of the Grand Fleet, aboard the latter’s flagship the Iron Duke and then transferred to the cruiser HMS Hampshire, which had been designated some days before to make the voyage to Archangel. Already a fierce gale was blowing from the northeast. It was suggested to Kitchener that he might delay his voyage for twenty-four hours, but he refused to contemplate any delay. It was then that the British naval authorities made the first of a series of fatal blunders. In view of the gale they decided to re-route the Hampshire up the west coast of Orkney rather than up the east coast, which was the more usual route for warships. The reasoning was that the Hampshire would be able to make a better speed up the west coast which was on the lee side of the storm, and therefore be safer from attack by enemy submarine. But the decision was based on meteorological ignorance. The Hampshire had hardly put to sea before the storm swung round from northeast to northwest, as was common with this kind of cyclone.

The Hampshire, with a top speed of twenty-two knots, was still able to make eighteen knots even in the adverse weather conditions. The two destroyers, Unity and Victor, that had been assigned to escort her, however, quickly fell behind. The Hampshire reduced its speed to 15 knots and headed in closer to land. But the destroyers continued to drop back. At 6.30 p.m. Captain Herbert Savill of the Hampshire signaled to the destroyers to return to port. If they could not keep up, their continuing was senseless. It was a fateful decision.

At approximately 7.40 p.m. the Hampshire was about one and a half miles offshore between Marwick Head and the Brough of Birsay on the very northwest corner of the mainland of Orkney. This is one of the bleakest and most remote spots in the entire British Isles and even though it was summertime, it was still a bitterly cold grey evening. Suddenly and disturbingly, above the screaming of the gale, a loud explosion was heard from below amidships, in the vicinity of the boiler room. The ship immediately took on a sharp list to starboard. The electric lights went out. Hundreds of men found themselves trapped below deck. Many of the firemen and stokers were severely burned with scalding water. Others were injured by flying debris. Within twenty minutes the Hampshire had gone down bows first. The appalling weather and the speed of the sinking had made it impossible to get off any boats, though an unsuccessful attempt was made to launch the Captain’s galley. The only chance of survival was to cling to a Carley life-raft. Three of these were successfully launched but they were grossly overcrowded, about 70 men grimy hanging on to each raft. One by one, as it got dark, most of these men dropped off. Of the 662 people on board the Hampshire only twelve survived. None of these survivors was among the seven members of Kitchener’s mission. According to those who survived, Kitchener was last seen standing calmly on the bridge deck in the company of Captain Savill, making no apparent effort to save himself. A fortune-teller had once told him that he would die by water. The roll-call of fatalities made it one of the worst naval disaster of the war.

No distress signal was transmitted by wireless from the sinking ship; not even a rocket was fired. Such omissions can only be explained as a result of the almost total paralysis that overtook the Hampshire from the moment of the explosion. But an islander called Joe Angus, a gunner in the Orkney Territorial Forces, noticed a cruiser in distress from his lookout at Birsay. He saw evidence of an explosion aft of the bridge. He immediately informed his corporal and urgent telegrams were dispatched to naval headquarters at Longhope.
There was some confusion on the part of the observers about whether or not the ship was a cruiser or a battlecruiser, and the first telegraphic message did not include the information that the Hampshire had sunk. This, together with a certain pedantic concern for correct detail on the part of the senior officer at Longhope, Vice-Admiral Sir F.E. Brock, caused a delay in sending rescue craft until 9.45 p.m. There was also long-lasting bitterness among the islanders, over the fact that the naval authorities forbade them to launch the island’s own lifeboat to assist in the rescue. The Navy also issued instructions that all islanders remain indoors away from the cliffs in the vicinity of the disaster. The reason for this high-handed and insensitive behavior on the part of the Navy no doubt had something to do with establishing proper security for Kitchener and the members of his mission in the event of their being rescued. Certainly there were fears at the time among the naval authorities that the island had been infiltrated by Irish and German saboteurs. But the effect of the ban was counter-productive, in that those who were lucky enough to reach the shore alive were deprived of help in scaling the cliffs. This belated obsession with security thus probably only to increase the death toll.

The reaction of the British nation to the death of Kitchener was one of stunned disbelief. Kitchener, more than any other single man, was identified as the leader of the British war effort. It was a terrible psychological blow, even though there were some high up in the government circles and the armed forces who were secretly relieved by his demise. A sizeable proportion of the population simply refused to believe that Kitchener was really dead. Rumours immediately began to proliferate about how he had been seen leaving the sinking ship in a dinghy or how a soldier in uniform had been seen coming ashore. The fact that Kitchener’s body was never recovered lent credence to the rumours. A tendency to mythologize rapidly overtook events and there was a strong beliefs among some of the more credulous sections of the population that Kitchener would one day return to lead his men again. Others accepted Kitchener’s death but looked around for someone to blame. The Irish were the obvious suspects, particularly because the Hampshire had been for a refit in Belfast a few months before it sank. Wild theories were elaborated about how time bombs had been fitted to the ship or stowaways were secreted somewhere deep in the ship’s holds.

The idea of sabotage was later fuelled by the publication of a number of books in Germany after the end of the war. Written by acknowledges German spies, they all personally claimed credit for the sinking. The pressure became so intense that in 1926, ten years after the sinking, the government was forced to issue a White Paper, revealing the findings of an internal inquiry. The intention was to lay the entire Hampshire controversy to rest. Certain matters that had caused disquiet were cleared up.

However the White Paper failed altogether to deal with the two most serious criticisms that could be leveled against the authorities. First, there had been a serious lack of security concerning Kitchener’s voyage. His impending mission had been openly discussed in most of the capitals of Europe from late May onwards, and it is almost certain that German intelligence would have picked up on it. Secondly, there was confusion regarding mine clearance in the area where the Hampshire went down (the details of which only fully emerged in 1959 with the publication of Donald McCormick’s excellent book on the subject, entitled Kitchener’s Death). On 26 May 1916, ten days before the Hampshire left, a German deciphering officer at the Neumunster listening station near Kiel picked up a coded message from a British destroyer to the Admiralty, stating that the route to the west of the Orkneys had been cleared of mines and was now safe for transit. The message was repeated three times. From this the Germans concluded that this route must have been designated for the passage of an important ship and included the area in their next minelaying sortie – previously they had ignored this route, used only by small unimportant merchant ships.

On 28 May the U-75, under Commander Kurt Beitzen, was dispatched to lay mines on the west side of Orkney, which he successfully accomplished. The extraordinary thing about this episode is not only the woeful lapse in security, but that there is no record in British naval files of such signal ever having been made from a British destroyer to the Admiralty. Furthermore there is no record that this western route was swept free of mines on 26 May, and the decision to use it for the Hampshire was only taken at the last minute. It can only be concluded that the signal intercepted by the German listening station was a rogue signal sent out by Naval Intelligence Division under Admiral Hall deliberately to mislead the Germans. Admiral Hall was fond of such cat and mouse games with the enemy. It seems that in the aftermath of the Battle of Jutland, which took place on 31 May, this crucial piece of counter-intelligence games playing was not communicated to Admiral Jellicoe, and that the latter, in complete ignorance and because of the freak weather, then inadvertently directed the Hampshire into the trap that British Naval Intelligence had instigated as a diversionary tactic. This was incompetence on a grand scale.

The White Paper did not put an end to the Hampshire scandal. But the next time the infamous cruiser hit the headlines of the world’s press it was in a different context entirely. An article in the Berliner Illustrierte Zeitung in 1933 carried a report referring to the salvage of £10,000 in gold bars from the Hampshire’s strong room. Suddenly HMS Hampshire had been transformed from cause célèbre into a treasure ship. The British and American press picked up on the story and soon the furore of interest was such that the Admiralty was once again obliged to issue a statement. It claimed that it knew nothing of the salvage, but that HMS Hampshire remained the property of HM Government and could not be touched without the permission of HM Government.

Some light was thrown on the mystery of the Hampshire treasure with the publication of a book called Unlocking Adventure by Charles Courtney in the early 1950s. Courtney described in some detail a highly secretive salvage attempt on HMS Hampshire in 1933 by a group of divers working off a ship called KSR out of Kiel under a Captain Brandt. According to Courtney, £60,000 worth of gold had been recovered when the salvage was aborted by a serious accident that resulted in one diver being killed and two thers being taken to hospital. Courtney claimed that there was in total £2 million worth of gold on board the Hampshire, and that the main purpose of Kitchener’s mission had been to provide the Tsar with this financial support.

There are aspects of Courtney’s description which suggest a certain amount of romantic embellishment, particularly concerning the miraculously preserved dead bodies he claimed to have encountered within the hull of the Hampshire. It is questionable whether or not any diving operation could possibly have taken place, in view of the fierce currents that run in the area of Marwick Head. Even today, with all the improvements in diving technology, it would still be difficult and complex operation. However, Courtney does provide a wealth of circumstantial detail, much of which has the ring of truth. For example, the presence of a strange ship in the vicinity of Marwick Head during long periods of the summer of 1933 was corroborated by local observers on the island itself. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Courtney’s account, however is not the graphic description he provides of diving inside the wreck but the detail he gives about the group of international financiers who backed the operation. This group included both the German industrialist Krupp and the notorious arms dealer Basil Zaharoff.

The problem with the Hampshire gold theory is that the government, the Bank of England and the Admiralty have all consistently denied any knowledge of gold being on board. One possible theory that has never been fully explored is that if there was gold on the Hampshire, it was not British gold at all, but privately owned Russian gold, held by the Romanov family in Britain, gold that was suddenly required in Russia in 1916 because of the state of emergency in which the Romanovs found themselves. One thing is certain. The Hampshire continues to exert an enduring fascination over treasure-hunters and shipwreck enthusiasts.

Lost Treasure Ships of the Twentieth Century by Nigel Pickford;

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