The Sinking of H.M.S. Britannia: The Last Major Royal Navy Warship Lost in the First World War
Portsmouth Cathedral is fortunate to have volunteers who support the many different activities which enable our ministry to the community. This year, with the centenary of the First World War Armistice, we have been reflecting on how so many families in Portsmouth were affected by the war. David Yates, who devotes much of his time volunteering to support our education activities at the cathedral, has shared with us this powerful account of his grandfather who survived the loss of the last Royal Navy ship, HMS Britannia which was based at Portsmouth, of the First World War.
The Sinking of H.M.S. Britannia:
The Last Major Royal Navy Warship Lost in the First World War
My grandfather, William 'Tom' Booth, told me in 1976 about his ship, H.M.S. Britannia, being torpedoed just before the end of the war on 9th November 1918.
She was a Portsmouth based ship, and he joined her as a junior seaman in October 1914. Britannia was part of The Third Battle Squadron and patrolled with The Grand Fleet until becoming part of the Second Detached Squadron in the Adriatic in 1916. After a refit in 1917 she conducted patrol and convoy escort duties in the Atlantic.
Thus as the war was drawing to a close she was supporting convoys bound for South Africa. She sent help to the troopship S. S. Mantua which was stricken with flu, and she supported the coaling of ships in port where staff were also stricken. Britannia herself was in quarantine in September 1918, being alongside in Sierra Leanne. At one point 43% of her crew had the flu and sadly some of them died.
In October and November she was escorting convoys to and from Dakar, and this brought her into the area of The Straits of Gibraltar where events directly leading to her sinking were starting to unfold.
With conditions becoming desperate in the nation, the German admiralty ordered the pack of u boats operating in the Adriatic to cease sinking Allied merchantmen, and return home. To do this meant getting past the U.S. Navy and Royal Navy submarine chasers ordered to concentrate on the Straits of Gibraltar. The British intelligence department, Room 40, had learned of the U-boats intended escape.
On 8th November, U.S.S. Druid and H.M.S. Privet were exchanging shots in stormy seas near the Straits, with UB-50, which was on the surface. The submarine got away, but the next day, the 9th, the captain of UB-50 had H.M.S. Britannia in his periscope.
At 08.08 hours Captain Heinrich Kukat fired three torpedoes. One hit the ship aft on the port side. Following this there was a large explosion, and a cordite fire started in the 9.2 magazine. The ship quickly developed a ten degree list to port. It was too difficult to launch the ship's boats, and so some of the crew transferred directly to one of the escorting vessels which came alongside. Two other ships were sent from Gibraltar to assist Britannia's two escorts.
An hour and a half later a periscope was spotted near Britannia, but her secondary armament opened fire on it and it disappeared from view. U.S.S. Druid and another ship went and dropped depth charges in the area. Meanwhile the ship was full of cordite fumes which claimed the lives of nearly fifty of the crew that day. Others were, later, to die from their wounds ashore. Attempts to counter flood were not successful. Towing was tried. However it was necessary for the assisting vessels, including H.M .S. Rocksands and H.M.S. Corepsis, to transfer the rest of the crew over from the sinking ship. Eighty wounded were saved, including my grandfather, a gunner, who had severe burns.
H.M .S. Britannia turned upside down and slipped beneath the waves at 11.31 hours, and remains a war grave. Her crew were taken to Gibraltar where their arrival there was witnessed by the commander of UB-68 who was on his way to a P.O.W. camp; his name was Karl Doenitz. Britannia's crew returned to Britain on 21st November.
When my grandfather reached the naval barracks in Portsmouth he said at the gate, “Leading Seaman Booth reporting for duty." The reply came, “Leading Seaman Booth is listed as presumed dead". My grandmother had also been told in a letter that he was dead. Happily he was very much alive and went on to serve in further ships until he retired as a C.P.O. in 1938. He was recalled in 1940 and went back on convoy escort duty aboard H.M .S. Alynbank, an anti-aircraft vessel.
This Remembrance Day I shall be very mindful of the story of my grandfather's battleship and how it was lost so close to the end of World War One, one hundred years ago.