© Brian Patterson

The Cruiser HMS Gladiator

HMS Gladiator, commanded by Capt Waiter Lumsden, left Portsmouth on the morning of 25th April, 1908 for Portsmouth where she was due to arrive at about 4 p.m. A cruiser belonging to the Portsmouth Division of the Home Fleet she had been laid down in Portsmouth Dockyard in January 1896, and launched on 12th December the same year. She was of 5,750 tons displacement and her engines had an indicated horsepower of 10.000. The complement was 450 officers and men.

The St. Paul, an American line mail steamer had later the same morning left Southampton bound for New York with passengers, cargo and mail. All went well until about half past two, when a very heavy snowstorm set in, reducing visibility to nil. The storm was to last for about one and half hours and the collision occurred during this blinding snowstorm off the Isle of Wight near Yarmouth. The Gladiator was so severely damaged that she had to be beached about a quarter of a mile from the shore. The St. Paul did not seem to be so seriously damaged through she did have a large hole in her bow.

If the collision had occurred in the open sea nothing could have saved the Gladiator from foundering in a few moments. As it was there was still the loss of 30 lives and many injured, some very seriously who were taken to Victoria Fort. Even more terrible would been the position if the warship had crashed into the liner, for this would have caused a much greater loss of lire in the icy water. In the reports of the disaster the Portsmouth Evening News reported some curious coincidences: it was close to the same spot the American liner New York collided with the troop ship Assaye which was bound for India with troops. Secondly, the Gladiator was the warship that rendered such valuable service when the Berwick-Tiger collision took place and it was Berwick that was one of the first vessels to reach Yarmouth and to help in the salvage of the Gladiator. Thirdly, on the day after the collision the American liner New York passed the stranded warship and the unpleasant memories of her own accident two years before.

One of the fatal casualties was a Maltese steward who lost his life through his love for gold. After the collision he rushed below to his bunk to get his store of money and then jumped over the side into the sea, lost his way in the icy water and so lost his life. His body was picked up under Yarmouth breakwater the next day and £47 in gold was found in his clothes.

Lying on her side in shallow water of the Isle of Wight. Salvage teams from Portsmouth Dockyard make their inspection of the wreck.

On 26th April, Sunday morning, divers were sent down from Portsmouth Dockyard tugs to explore the interior of the stranded cruiser. Until now none of the bodies had been removed from the flooded ship so that the work was far from pleasant. After the divers had examined the wreck the Admiralty decided to place the work of endeavouring to salve the Gladiator with a Liverpool firm who were well known for their experience in this type of work. After this firm had made its first survey they thought that it would take them at least two months to refloat the Gladiator, though as far as could be seen at this early stage it was only the hull which was damaged.

On Wednesday 29th April, the St. Paul was placed in the Alexandra graving dock at Southampton and considerable damage in the fore part of the liner below the water line was found. It is thought that it was only the liner's watertight partitions, which saved her.

Back with Gladiator, progress was very slow right through the summer, though the effort and skill used was for its day very impressive. The Liverpool salvage association commenced the task of refloating the Gladiator. Large pumps were placed on her decks with boilers taken from old steam trains to supply large volumes of steam day and night to pump out huge amounts of seawater. Also a cofferdam was built right round the wreck as it was found that as she was only just above the surface of the water, seas at times broke right over her. All this time there was a strong tendency for the ship to list over further and for all the good work to be undone. The salvage work was made very difficult by very strong tides off Yarmouth.

By October the Gladiator had been raised and was almost watertight. A huge air cylinder was sunk on the starboard side to help to give the ship more buoyancy. The salvage steamer Ranger and one large air cylinder were lashed on the port side, while on the starboard side three more air cylinders were lashed on, the largest one going right across the fracture in the ship's side. The salvage steamer Enterprise and a pumping lighter were also made fast to try and keep the Gladiator balanced.

On Sunday morning, 4th October, the journey to Portsmouth Dockyard began at 12.35 p.m. Hooters and sirens from ships and boats around the Gladiator made quite a din and also announced that at last she was on her way home to Portsmouth Dockyard. The Gladiator was hauled by four tugs and it was thought they should reach Portsmouth by about four o'clock if all went well with the tow.

The wreck is righted with camels (floating tanks) lashed to her sides to stabilize her as she makes her entry into Portsmouth Dockyard.

Early on Sunday morning a large party of Dockyard riggers who had been detained all Saturday afternoon were again on duty. The Gladiator, with accompanying camels and tugs had to be berthed alongside the tidal basin with the cruiser's bows close up to the deep dock. For the rest of the day the 50 ton crane at the side of the basin was kept busy hauling out of the Gladiator. It was left until Wednesday to put her into dry dock so as to have the help of the spring tides and several additional feet of water.

At low water the Gladiator was aground as she lay alongside the basin. All this time Dockyard divers were at work underneath the hull to ascertain if there were any obstructions, such as broken plates, which would interfere with the passage of the vessel over the sill of the dry dock.

The Gladiator was safely in dock by half past eight on Wednesday morning, the pumps having been kept going all night. Salvage men and a large party of Dockyard riggers had been engaged all night in watching and getting ready for the dry-docking.

Guy ropes were attached to the top of the Gladiators masts and to capstans on the dockside to assist in getting the vessel upright. Three of the camels were removed but one other and the largest one were left on the starboard side. From these three and half inch hawsers passed right under the keel of the Gladiator and were secured to her deck fittings on the port side.

Soon after eight o'clock the depth of water over the sill of the dry dock was close on 40 feet. Everything now being favourable, the sliding caisson at the dock entrance was opened and, by means of a long steel hawser carried From each side of the cruiser to capstans at the head of the dock, the Gladiator was hauled in.

She still had a large list to starboard. Divers once again made a descent underneath the hull to make sure all was clear and that there was no impediment to getting the hull squarely over the blocks and on an even keel. Pumps were still going steadily to remove large quantities of water from centre compartments of the ship.

Soon after mid-day, work on pumping out the dry dock commenced and the damaged portion of the starboard side could be seen for the first time. It was a marvel that the warship was ever to reach the Dockyard.

In dock at the start of the docking operation

From a little Forward of amidships the entire side plating of the vessel from the upper deck right down to the keel had been cut away for a length of over 40 feet. Most of the plating had been folded back against the side abaft of the aperture, and all decks left bare, but the deck plating was not crushed for it was intact right up the aperture.

From this experts infer that the St. Paul's blow must have been a glancing one, and one must have just scopped off the Gladiator's side plating. The Gladiator was now shored up and work of cleaning out the ship was undertaken. Though a large amount of disinfectant was used, there was still a very strong smell. A Dockyard lighter alongside the tidal basin was used to dump all the wrecked ship's hammocks and the men's clothes, and a great deal of the ship's gear was to be found lying on the dockside, the odour of which could be smelt all over the dockyard and was far from pleasant.

Dockyard workmen began to cut away the debris on the starboard side so that experts could carefully examine the Gladiator and afterwards give a surveyed report to the Admiralty so that they could decide whether to repair or break her up. The impression this time was to break her up.

13th October 1908. It is now understood that the Admiralty have decided to sell the vessel for whatever it will fetch, the intention being to construct a wooden side over the damaged portion so as to allow the cruiser to be towed away to the port at which she will be broken up. So ends the life of a great ship.

 [Back home]

This site is owned by Phil Russell Copyright © 1999. All rights reserved.
Revised: September 12, 1999.