One way or another, the HMS Amphion can certainly claim to have kicked off the war at sea for the British Navy. It won the first victory on 5th August 1914, chasing down and sinking a German minelayer, but by a cruel twist of fate was itself wrecked the very next day by one of the mines that the enemy trawler had been laying.
When Britain declared war on Germany on 4th August 1914 the Light Cruiser HMS Amphion, captained by the well-respected Commander Cecil H. Fox, was the command ship for the Third Destroyer Flotilla. Having received orders to systematically search the North Sea for enemy ships, at 10am on the 5th the cruiser was hailed by a fishing trawler which reported seeing a suspicious vessel near the Thames Estuary, ‘throwing things overboard’.
The Flotilla went to investigate, and soon spotted the SS Königin Luise (decked out in the colours of the Great Eastern Railway as a disguise) steaming rapidly back towards the German coast. HMS Amphion fired a warning shot to try to halt the passenger ferry – the first shot of the war at sea to date – but the Königin Luise instead put on an extra burst of speed in a futile attempt to escape the British destroyers.
As ‘The Grear War Volume 1’, edited by H W Wilson and J A Hammerton, reports, the ferry never stood a chance. Captain Fox immediately sent four fast destroyers, the Lance, Laurel, Lark and Linnet, in pursuit. Catching up at around midday, the ships fired four shots between them; one carried away the bridge, a second missed, and the third and fourth thudded home on the ferry’s stern, which was ripped clean away. Within six minutes of the first shot the ship was sunk, and with her over half of her 130-man crew. Around 50 men were saved, including Commander Bierman, her captain. The book claims that he was so apoplectic with rage at the loss of his ship that he threatened to shoot any member of the crew that made signs of surrender as the vessel was sinking, and had himself to be taken by force in the end.
Once the prisoners were distributed among the Flotilla, most on HMS Amphion, the systematic search resumed and continued throughout the day and night. The probable position of the mines had been reported to the authorities so that the minesweepers could come in, and on coming across a passenger boat conveying the Prince Lichnowsky, the German Ambassador at the time war was declared, back home from Britain to Germany, the Light Cruiser warned the ship of the danger from mines and passed on.
On the morning of 6th August 1914, tragedy struck. Unbeknownst to HMS Amphion, SS Königin Luise had done her job thoroughly, extending her mines off the coast of Suffolk to a point 60 miles out to sea. Warned as she was of the danger, the British command ship passed too close to where the ferry had been working and struck a mine at 6.30am. The bridge was immediately engulfed in fire, and the Captain was knocked senseless and fell onto the fore-and-aft bridge. He quickly recovered, though, and ran to stop the engine.
However, fire made the bridge inaccessible, the damage to the ship’s stern was extensive and it wasn’t possible to flood the magazine in an attempt to make the ammunition safe. Accordingly, all that could be done was to make wounded men safe and prepare to abandon ship. The official report on 19th August 1914 stated: ‘The men fell in with this purpose with the same composure that had marked their behaviour throughout. All was done without hurry or confusion, and twenty minutes after the mine was struck the men, officers, and captain left the ship.’
The exercise was completed not a moment too soon. Three minutes after all live and wounded men were off HMS Amphion, a second explosion rocked the unfortunate ship. It seemed that she had struck a cable between two mines, and according to ‘The History of the Great European War, Volume II’, by W Stanley Macbean Knight, the blast from the second mine lit the magazine, causing an even bigger explosion. It was so violent that one of the ship’s guns was flung 20 feet into the air. Debris rained down on the rescue boats and attending destroyers, and a shell hit Lark and killed two of the men and one German prisoner. From HMS Amphion, 130 of the men and the Paymaster had been lost in the first blast, as well as 20 German prisoners, while the Captain, 16 officers and 135 men were saved.
The book quotes a letter from one of the survivors to his relative, written from the Naval Barracks at Devonport, as saying:
‘When it (the explosion) happened I really thought my number had gone up, there to stay, but through the care of the good God above, I have been spared a most terrible death. It is the nearest I have been to the end, and the experience will last me a lifetime.
‘It is too terrible to relate. I lost both my chums in the disaster. One was in the wireless room decoding with the Paymaster, who also lost his life, and the other asleep in the mess. It must have been a sudden death for both of them, which is indeed a mercy for the dear chaps.
‘I cannot say whether I shall go to sea again, but if they stand in need of my poor services, I am quite ready to go, and, if necessary, go altogether, for it is for the King, Country, Home and Loved Ones that everyone is fighting for.
‘I little expected, as I stood looking over the side, thinking to go down any minute, that I should have the privilege of once more seeing the dear ones at home.
‘Everything and everybody seemed to float before my eyes during those trying minutes while we stood in two lines awaiting our fate. I have never seen such bravery and coolness in the face of death in all my life. I cannot imagine how I managed to keep cool and collected through it all, but not a man moved until he had orders to do so.’
Captain Fox lived to fight another day, as the news extracts show. Despite his scare, he was on another ship within two days and continued to command the Third Destroyer Flotilla.