HMS Pathfinder (1904)

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Loss of HMS Pathfinder, September 5th 1914 Art.IWMART5721.jpg
The Loss of HMS Pathfinder. Painting by William Lionel Wyllie (1920), Imperial War Museum Art Collection. Formerly the property of Pathfinder's captain, Vice Admiral Francis Martin Leake
Royal Navy EnsignUnited Kingdom
Name: HMS Pathfinder
Builder: Cammell Laird, Birkenhead
Laid down: August 1903
Launched: 16 July 1904
Commissioned: 18 July 1905
Fate: Sunk 5 September 1914 by U-21
General characteristics (as built)
Type: Scout cruiser
Displacement: 2,940 long tons (2,987 t)
Length: 370 ft (112.8 m) (p/p)
Beam: 38 ft 9 in (11.8 m)
Draught: 15 ft 2 in (4.6 m) (deep load)
Installed power:
Propulsion: 2 Shafts, 2 triple-expansion steam engines
Speed: 25 knots (46 km/h; 29 mph)
Complement: 289

HMS Pathfinder was the lead ship of the Pathfinder class of scout cruisers, and was the first ship ever to be sunk by a locomotive torpedo fired by submarine (the American Civil War ship USS Housatonic had been sunk by a spar torpedo). She was built by Cammell Laird, Birkenhead, launched on 16 July 1904, and commissioned on 18 July 1905. She was originally to have been named HMS Fastnet, but was renamed prior to construction.


Not long after completion, two additional 12 pounder guns were added and the 3 pounder guns were replaced with six 6 pounder guns. In 1911–12 they were rearmed with nine 4-inch guns. Pathfinder spent her early career with the Atlantic Fleet, Channel Fleet (1906) and then the Home Fleet (1907). At the start of the First World War she was part of the 8th Destroyer Flotilla based at Rosyth in the Firth of Forth and commanded by Capt Francis Martin-Peake.[1]

Pathfinder was sunk off St. Abbs Head, Berwickshire, Scotland, on Saturday 5 September 1914 by the German U-21, commanded by Kapitänleutnant Otto Hersing. Typical of the scout cruisers' poor endurance, she was so short of coal while on patrol that she could only manage a speed of 5 knots, making her an easy target.[citation needed] The ship was struck in a magazine, which exploded, causing the ship to sink within minutes with the loss of 259 men.


At the beginning of September 1914, Otto Hersing, Commanding Officer of U-21, ventured to the Firth of Forth, home to the major British naval base at Rosyth. Hersing is known to have penetrated the Firth of Forth as far as the Carlingnose Battery beneath the Forth Bridge. At one point the periscope was spotted and the battery opened fire but without success. Overnight Hersing withdrew from the Forth, patrolling the coast from the Isle of May southwards. On the morning of 5 September, he observed HMS Pathfinder on a SSE course, followed by elements of the 8th Destroyer Flotilla. At midday, the destroyers altered course back towards the Isle of May while Pathfinder continued her patrol. Shortly thereafter, Hersing spotted Pathfinder on her return journey through his periscope and resolved to make an attack.

At 1543 U-21 fired a single 50 cm (20 in) Type G torpedo at a range of 2,000 yards. At 1545 lookouts spotted a torpedo wake heading towards the starboard bow and the officer of the watch, Lieutenant-Commander Favell, attempted to take evasive action by ordering the starboard engine be put astern and the port engine at full ahead while the wheel was turned hard a port. Since the vessel was traveling at a mere five knots, however (due to a shortage of coal throughout the Royal Navy at the time), the manoeuvre was not in time and the torpedo struck the ship beneath the bridge. The detonation apparently set off cordite bags in the forward magazine which caused a second, more massive explosion within the fore section of the ship, essentially destroying everything forward of the bridge. Broken in two, the "Pathfinder" instantly began sinking, dragging most of her crew down with her and leaving a massive pall of smoke to mark her grave. The vessel sank so quickly, in fact, that there was insufficient time to launch lifeboats. (Indeed, the remains of a lifeboat davit and rope can still be seen on the wreck, demonstrating the speed with which the vessel sank.)

One survivor of the sinking, Lt (E) Edward Oliver Sonnenschein, described the sinking as such:

Also among the survivors was staff surgeon Thomas Aubrey Smyth, who lived at Bedeque House in Dromore, Co Down.

Recounting the experience in a letter to his mother, he said the explosion had blown a "great hole in the side of the ship".

"I was at the time in the wardroom, but ran up on deck immediately, and it was then evident by the way the bow was down in the water that she would sink rapidly," he said.

"I was then thrown forward by the slope of the deck and got jammed beneath a gun (which I expect is the cause of my bruising) and while in this position was carried down some way by the sinking ship, but fortunately after a time I became released and after what seemed like interminable ages I came to the surface, and after swimming a short time I was able to get an oar and some other floating material with the help of which I was just able to keep on the surface."

Fishing boats from the nearby fishing port of Eyemouth were the first on the scene and encountered a field of debris, fuel oil, clothing and body parts. Additionally, the British destroyers HMS Stag and Express had spotted the smoke and headed for the pall of smoke, only to find that what few survivors there were had already been rescued. (There was an anecdotal story that one of the destroyers had an engine problem when a water inlet was blocked by a leg in a seaboot.)

There is significant confusion regarding the numbers of survivors. On 6 September The Times declared that 58 men had been rescued but that four had died of injuries. The fact that it is impossible to determine how many were on board that day adds to the problem, but modern research indicates that in all probability, there were 268 personnel on board plus two civilian canteen assistants. There were just eighteen known survivors:

Captain Francis Martin-Leake, Edward Oliver Sonnenschein (Stallybrass), Lt (E) Bath Alan G Lt. Paymaster, Bannister A Stoker, Brett Wm OS, Bruce, Stanley ERA, Fothergill Reg, AB, Harness Henry, Signal Man, (source: Hull Daily Mail Newspaper, 12 September 1914) Jones, P, Mechanician, Kevan, S, L./Sig, Lewis E Stoker, Marland J Pte RMLI, Noy, J Stoker, Pring, wm, Stoker, Rogers, Wm Boy, Smyth, Thomas Aubrey, Staff Surgeon, Trimming, Alfred Boy, Mcdermott A L/Stoker, Marriot, Charles, AB.

Four more men died of injuries or exposure and are buried at Dalmeny in Fife and Warriston near Edinburgh. One unknown Pathfinder sailor is buried at Dunbar overlooking the scene of the sinking.

The explosion was seen by British writer Aldous Huxley (while staying at Northfield House, St. Abbs) who recorded the following in a letter to his father sent on 14 September 1914:

I dare say Julian told you that we actually saw the Pathfinder explosion – a great white cloud with its foot in sea.

The St. Abbs' lifeboat came in with the most appalling accounts of the scene. There was not a piece of wood, they said, big enough to float a man—and over acres the sea was covered with fragments—human and otherwise. They brought back a sailor's cap with half a man's head inside it. The explosion must have been frightful. It is thought to be a German submarine that did it, or, possibly, a torpedo fired from one of the refitted German trawlers, which cruise all round painted with British port letters and flying the British flag.

Despite the events of 5 September having been easily visible from shore, the authorities attempted to cover up the fact that Pathfinder had been sunk by a torpedo, insisting instead that it had struck a mine. The reason for this is unclear, but probably has to do with the Admiralty's position that submarines — a still new and largely untested weapons platform — lacked the capacity to sink a surface warship with a torpedo. A local paper, however, The Scotsman, published an eye-witness account by an Eyemouth fisherman, who had assisted in the rescue, that confirmed rumors that a submarine had been responsible. (However The Scotsman also reported that Pathfinder had been attacked by two U-boats and had accounted for the second one in her death throes. Admiralty intelligence later claimed that cruisers had cornered the U-boat responsible and shelled it to oblivion.) The sinking of Pathfinder by a submarine made both sides aware of the potential vulnerability of large ships to attack by submarines.


  1. ^ "Cwt" is the abbreviation for hundredweight, 18 cwt referring to the weight of the gun.



  • Chesneau, Roger & Kolesnik, Eugene M., eds. (1979). Conway's All the World's Fighting Ships 1860–1905. Greenwich: Conway Maritime Press. ISBN 0-8317-0302-4. 
  • Corbett, Julian. Naval Operations to the Battle of the Falklands. History of the Great War: Based on Official Documents. I (2nd, reprint of the 1938 ed.). London and Nashville, Tennessee: Imperial War Museum and Battery Press. ISBN 0-89839-256-X. 
  • Friedman, Norman (2009). British Destroyers From Earliest Days to the Second World War. Annapolis, Maryland: Naval Institute Press. ISBN 978-1-59114-081-8. 
  • Friedman, Norman (2011). Naval Weapons of World War One. Barnsley, South Yorkshire, UK: Seaforth. ISBN 978-1-84832-100-7. 
  • Gardiner, Robert & Gray, Randal, eds. (1984). Conway's All the World's Fighting Ships: 1906–1921. Annapolis, Maryland: Naval Institute Press. ISBN 0-85177-245-5. 

Further reading[edit]

  • ADM 116/1356 List of Pathfinder dead
  • ADM 137/3106 Reported presence of enemy submarine in Firth of Forth

External links[edit]

Coordinates: 56°07′21″N 02°09′15″E / 56.12250°N 2.15417°E / 56.12250; 2.15417