Isle Of Wight Shipwrecks: Gladiator, A1

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In April 1908, two of the Royal Navy's ships were sunk in the Solent, HMS Tiger and HMS Gladiator.

HMS Tiger

On the 2nd April 1908, the 380 ton destroyer, HMS Tiger, took part in a Home Fleet exercise 20 miles south of the Isle of Wight to test defences against torpedo boats. She had been built by John Brown and Co, Clydebank, for the Admiralty in 1900 and had a speed of 30 knots, and was armed with one 12 pounder and two torpedo tubes.

During the excercise, HMS Tiger crossed the bow of a nearby cruiser HMS Berwick and was sliced in half, its bow section sinking almost immediately. Fortunately, the stern section stayed afloat long enough for most of her 63 crew to be rescued, but the captain and 27 members of the crew were drowned.

HMS Gladiator

HMS Gladiator was a 12 year old twin-screw 5,750 ton cruiser with a crew of 250 men. On April 25th 1908, a foul misty and snowy day, she set sail from Portland to Portsmouth at 10:30, whilst at 12:30 the American 11,630 ton mail liner St Paul1 sailed from Southampton on her way to New York. The St. Paul and the Gladiator entered Hurst Race at the same time, at a time when the snow storm was at its height. The two ships did not see each other until they were less than half a mile apart, heading on a direct collision course.

The Gladiator was moving at 9 knots, the St. Paul at 13. Although standard convention decrees that if two ships are on a collision course both ships should swing their helms hard to port, meaning their bows swing to starboard so that they pass on the port side, on this occasion things went wrong. Captain Passow on the St. Paul ordered the helm hard to port to swing the bow to starboard, yet the St. Paul signalled "Going to port". HMS Gladiator wrongly assumed that the St. Paul was swerving the wrong way, and went hard to starboard. The bow of the St. Paul headed straight for the cruiser, and at 2:30pm crashed straight into the cruiser's starboard side, killing many men.

The sea then rushed into the Gladiator through the hole created by the St. Paul, and despite the sealing of watertight doors, water still poured into the ship at an alarming rate. The ship slowly turned over and capsized onto her starboard side, throwing many men into the water.

The Gladiator grounded on Sconce Point, near Yarmouth, only 250 yards from the shore. Many men jumped into the sea in an attempt to swim to the Island, not knowing that the tidal current off Sconce Point is one of the most dangerous in Britain's coastline. Only 4 boats from the Gladiator were launched as many had been smashed by the St. Paul, and as the Gladiator rested on her side, those on her port side were unable to launch. Of the 4 boats, one sank immediately, another only made one journey ashore before sinking, leaving only 2.

The St. Paul was also helpless to help, as her lifeboats were unable to launch due to the blizzard. The ropes and pulleys that launched the lifeboats were frozen and blocked with ice. It took almost half an hour before the first lifeboat could be launched, only for it to be driven away from the men in the water by the wind.

Luckily Sconce Point was the site of Fort Victoria2, a Victorian Fort that was now a Royal Engineer garrison. The fort's gig and three dingies were launched to rescue the sailors, with many men wading and swimming in the ice-cold water to rescue them. Corporal Stenning is reported to have saved seven men, before he himself was rescued from the sea suffering from
exposure. The Gladiator was fully evacuated, with many of her sailors recovering in nearby Golden Hill Fort's Military Hospital.

Only one officer and 28 men had died, most of whom had drowned. However, only 3 of their bodies were found, due to the swift current.

After 5 months work, in which time she became almost a macabre tourist attraction for sightseers in hired boats, HMS Gladiator was stripped of her armament and righted, finally sold for scrap for £339;15,125, less than the attempted salvage work had cost. The St. Paul returned to Southampton for repairs, and was soon ship-shape again. But strangely enough, the St. Paul unaccountably capsized and sank whilst in New York Harbour on April 25th 1918 - exactly 10 years after HMS Gladiator sank.


On the very edge of the waters surrounding the Isle of Wight lies the remains of Britain's first own-designed submarine, the A1. 2 miles south of Chichester Harbour she lies, and in 1999 became a Protected Site under the 1973 Protected Wrecks Act.

The A1 Submarine had an almost cursed career. After the turn of the century the Admiralty had decided to design and build submarines, and evaluate their performance. The Admiralty had previously described them as "a despicable, un-English weapon of war", yet felt they could not afford to be left out in their development.

Her Design

Designed initially as an improvement of the American "Holland Class3" submarine, yet later modified beyond all resemblance, HM Submarine No. 1 was built at Vickers and launched in 1902.

She displaced 110 tons, was over 63 feet long and had a maximum beam of 12 foot, with a top speed of 8 knots. Her ballast tank was inside her pressure hull in a configuration known as "spindle form". She was armed with a single torpedo tube capable of firing an 18 inch torpedo. Although only capable of travelling 25 miles underwater, she was superior to contempory French and American submarine design and had an excellent dive time. Although it lacked a conning tower, and were often swamped when surfaced, the A1 had one distinct advantage over the Holland submarines; she had a periscope. By 1904, 5 "A" Class submarines, as they were now called, had been built.4

By far her most important passenger was the Prince of Wales, later to be King George V. In March 1904 he took a trip in her, not long before her first disater.

Early Disaster

On the 18th March 1904, the five A Class submarines took part in exercises off the Isle of Wight. The exercise consisted of a simulated attack on the cruiser Juno. It is believed that her Commander, concentrating on pursuing the Juno failed to notice the steamer, Berwick Castle steaming towards them. The captain of the Berwick Castle, not having seen a submarine before, or even known of their existence, did not realise the implications, and despite attempting to avoid the A1 at the last minute, they collided. The A1 sank near the Nab Lightship5. All 14 of her crew perished in the accident.

The A1 was then salvaged and repaired, and after a 5 week refit served until 1910, when she was damaged by an internal explosion. Fortunately no-one was killed, her crew were merely injured, one of which, Petty Officer Drury, was blown out of the conning tower into the sea. The cause was found to be petrol vapour from the submarine's petrol engine.

Loss Of The A1

The A1 was then modified to become an unmanned target for the Admiralty Anti-Submarine Committee, and in 1911 was lost whilst under automatic control, and searches failed to find her. She was re-discovered by divers in the 1980s.

Her Sisterships

One of the major faults of the A Series vessels was 'a lack of buoyancy, a problem to affect all the A class vessels. Two others of her class were lost in Island waters.

In October 1905, A4 commanded by Lieutenant Martin Nasmith, was swamped just as it was diving near Stokes Bay. She sank rapidly, but the quick thinking of Nasmith helped her resurface after only four minutes. She was towed to Portsmouth harbour by HMS Hazard, but suffered two violent explosions before sinking slowly beneath the waves.

The subsequent court martial found Lieutenant Nasmith guilty of default, but he was acquitted of the more serious charge of negligence. Nasmith later was awarded the Victoria Cross for action with the Submarine Service in the Dardenelles and even reached the rank of admiral.

On 2nd February 1912, A3 was involved in a Fleet exercise to the south-east of the Isle of Wight. As it was surfacing it was rammed and sunk by HMS Hazard, with the loss of 14 officers and men. HMS Hazard, an old torpedo-gunboat, was, since 1902 had been the Submarine Service's first depot ship.

By the Great War, the E Class submarine had been introduced, carrying a crew of 30 and 5 torpedo tubes, 55 of which had been built by 1916.

Isle Of Wight Shipwrecks

1Most famous for, when Marconi was onboard in November 1899, the first ever vessel-to-shore wireless message was sent to his receiving station on the Isle of Wight.2Now a country park containing a Planetarium, Aquarium and other attractions3A Submarine design by John Holland, who had been experimenting with submarine designs since 1878. In April 1900 the United States Navy ordered his latest submarine design, USS Holland and four others. They had a speed of 7 knots above water, 6 below. Britain also purchased a Holland class submarine, which was built by Vickers and known as Holland 1, and still survives at the Submarine museum.413 A class submarines were built in total.5Since replaced with the Nab Tower, one of the Submarine Barrier Towers built across the Straits of Dover during the Great War.

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